Recently, The Hindu's Rural Affairs Editor, P. Sainath, analysed with solid facts the rise in the number of suicides by farmers in States such as Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. The data provided a few weeks ago by the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2009 have broken a declining trend in the number of farmers reported to be resorting to the extreme step. The State governments that provide the data are invariably in denial mode about the causes of these suicides.
Yet another concern for the people is the steep rise in the prices of onions, eggs, vegetables, and milk. The spurt in food inflation to 18.32 per cent in the week ending on December 25, 2010 has, understandably, drawn the utmost attention of the authorities, right from the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh and his Advisory Council, besides the Reserve Bank of India. They were at it for four days (January 11 to 14). At the end of it all, came the report that the food inflation had gone down to 16.91 in the week ending January 1 against the previous week's 18.32.
Recent media reports have brought to the fore some worrying trends on the food and agriculture front. Citing a report of the Rangarajan Committee, they have highlighted the Central Government's efforts to dilute the content of the promised Food Security Bill in the face of feeble resistance from an apparently divided National Advisory Council, headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
When the original draft of the Bill was found inadequate by a cross section of people, a revived NAC, which was enlarged with a few more champions of food security, discussed different options and came up with a new draft, itself a diluted version of a stronger draft. After six rounds of discussion, the NAC sent its recommendations on the National Food Security Bill to the Working Group.
The first recommendation sought to break the reluctance of the Union Government to extend the benefits of statutory food security above the officially delineated poverty line. The NAC recommended that legal entitlements to subsidised food grains should be extended to at least 75 per cent of the country's population — 90 per cent in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas.
The eligible 75 per cent of the people were to be divided into two groups, priority and general households. The priority households (46 per cent in rural areas and 28 per cent in urban areas) were to have a monthly entitlement of 35 kg at a subsidised price of Re.1 per kg for millets, Rs. 2 for wheat, and Rs. 3 for rice. The general households (44 per cent in rural areas and 22 per cent in urban areas) were to be entitled to a monthly quota of 20 kg at a price not exceeding 50 per cent of the current Minimum Support Price (MSP) for millets, wheat, and rice.
Highly dissatisfied with the latest development, Jean Dreze, an economist and a member of the NAC, has stated that the advisory body “came under a lot of pressure to accommodate constraints imposed by the government” and the final result was “a minimalist proposal that misses many important elements of food security.”
The worrying aspect is that even in a diluted form, the NAC recommendations are not palatable to an expert committee chaired by the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council Chairman, C. Rangarajan. This conservative group favours a mandatory entitlement of subsidised food grains for the “priority” (Below the Poverty Line) category as recommended by the NAC. But it does not think it is feasible to extend to the ‘general' (Above the Poverty Line) category a legal entitlement of subsidised food grains under the Public Distribution System. Further, it suggests that the subsidised grains for the poor should be linked to inflation and to the Consumer Price Index in the coming years.
In a note it presented on January 10, the NAC's Working Group on Food Security dwelt at length on the proposed entitlements as well as the setting up of a grievance redress mechanism for the food security scheme. This was to ensure that if the beneficiaries were deprived of their entitlements, they could approach a designated authority and secure their rights.
It is a great pity that after a serious effort, which was reported in detail and editorially backed by sections of the press, to put in place an effective food security system, nothing much has come out of it. Hunger and nutritional deprivation on a mass scale are key challenges before rising India. The policy response from the government and its various arms is slow, grossly inadequate, and confused. This is one area affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people where the news media, especially Indian language newspapers and television channels, which have a big reach today could play a leading, socially responsible, and progressive role in building a public agenda.