The June 1 announcement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while releasing the Report Card for the first year of the second term of the United Progressive Alliance Government, that the Food Security Bill was under preparation and that the Bill would be placed in the public domain for scrutiny and wider consultation has raised hopes about early enactment of the law to ensure the people's right to food as part of the right to life. The revival on the previous day of the National Advisory Council headed by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, which had some role in shaping the economic and social agenda of the UPA-1 (2004-2009), was a prelude to the Prime Minister's announcement.
The Council will deal with several social issues, including communal harmony, primary and higher education, and public health. But the hope is that ensuring food security, the ruling alliance's flagship project for its current phase, corresponding to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme taken up by the UPA-1, will get top billing. It may be recalled that a section of the UPA leadership rejected the draft Bill on food security, a few days before it was scheduled to be taken to the Cabinet for approval prior to going to Parliament for discussion. The draft was withdrawn for a major overhaul, after it was found wanting in several respects.
The Congress was reportedly keen on having four points of the Bill reworked, in view of the criticisms they drew. The criticisms related to the quantum of ration proposed; the uncertainty and confusion over the number of people eligible for relief; the entitlement for highly vulnerable groups such as the homeless; and the issue of food coupons. The Bill was finally sent back to the Empowered Group of Ministers, from where it originated. By then, many organisations, political parties, economists and social activists had expressed their views on the draft, which was in the public domain for a few weeks in March-April. They expressed their strong dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, some key provisions.
Monthly food entitlement
The most shocking was the provision that brought down the monthly food entitlement to certain sections of the affected people from the existing 35 kg of rice or wheat at Rs. 2 per kg to 25 kilos at Rs. 3 per kg. (The current entitlement of 35 kg of rice or wheat has been mandated by Supreme Court orders, according to activists.) Critics said things like: ‘What this government seeks to provide is not food security, but food insecurity.' They pointed out that the draft Bill sought to exclude a substantial section of the people of India from the list of people Below the Poverty Line (BPL), as defined and estimated by the Planning Commission, and deny them the benefits under the food security scheme. According to the draft, if a particular State government wanted to extend the benefit to certain additional families over and above that provided for BPL families (those with an earning less than Rs. 11 a day, based on the estimate of the Planning Commission), it could do so but only by separate identification of such additional families and with its own budgetary resources. The central government could make some allocations of food grain for the Above Poverty Line (APL) families at issue prices, which would not be lower than the cost price.
The Planning Commission estimate of the number of BPL households is far lower than the figures given by the Suresh Tendulkar and N.C. Saxena committee reports. With vast sections of people working in the unorganised sector earning fluctuating incomes, it is only proper that vulnerable sections of people in the APL category are also made eligible for the benefits under the food security programme. Several activists have suggested that only a return to the more inclusive Universal Public Distribution System could ensure food security.
Another objection raised by critics was that the entitlement was limited only to food grain. Activists have been demanding inclusion of other essential items such as cereals including millets, pulses, edible oil, and sugar in the relief pack.
What is clear is that the draft Bill made a mockery of the right to life and the related right to food and the Congress leadership intervened at the last moment to avert a policy debacle. One hopes that the National Advisory Council, comprising economists and other experts and social activists, can rewrite the Bill to put in place an effective food security programme for all. Interestingly, several re-nominated and newly appointed members of the Council have been firm critics. A body comprising geneticist and food policy expert M.S. Swaminathan, economist and social activist Jean Dreze, Magsaysay Award winner and RTI activist Aruna Roy, retired civil servant N.C. Saxena, human rights activist Harsh Mander, and others with field experience must be deemed to be eminently capable of shaping a new draft Bill for ameliorating mass hunger, malnutrition, and distress. The question is how much weight their views will have with the Manmohan Singh government.
Hearteningly, Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy, and Harsh Mander were among the signatories to a letter to the Prime Minister from the Right to Food Campaign asking the government to come up with a new Bill that covered every adult resident of the country under the PDS. “Nothing short of a universal entitlement for the PDS would suffice to change the existing situation.” Describing the first draft Bill as a “minimalist draft,” the letter said it was “not only a betrayal of the people of India but also is in contempt of the orders of the Supreme Court in the right to food case.” Professor M.S. Swaminathan, a Member of the Rajya Sabha, is a highly respected international voice on food policy: over the past five years and more, he has written a host of editorial page articles in The Hindu on the theme. He has steadfastly and persuasively advocated an entitlement strategy that is based on a Universal Public Distribution System for all and the provision of nutrients to all the beneficiaries, keeping in view the fact that India accounts for about half the world's under-nourished children.
There is certainly no dearth of policy inputs and prescriptions from experts on how to ensure food security for all. There has also been some excellent journalistic coverage of mass hunger and deprivation, led by The Hindu's Rural Affairs Editor P. Sainath and involving a growing number of young reporters contributing to newspapers coming out in various languages.
But for the Indian media as a whole, covering mass deprivation cannot be said to have become a central, defining, agenda-building pursuit. Dr. Swaminathan points out ways in which the news media can serve as an early warning system in relation to the deepening crisis of agriculture and the rural economy. The pro-active role played by veteran journalists in the heady days of the Green Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s finds mention in one of his articles. Old-timers recall how new varieties of wheat, such as Kalyan, Sona, and Sonalika, were known to farmers as “radio varieties” — thanks to the enormous publicity agriculture got from All India Radio. There was an extraordinary interest among senior journalists and editorial writers of that era in the programmes to popularise high-yielding varieties among farmers, almost a missionary zeal in willing the Green Revolution to succeed. The limitations of that agricultural transformation may have now become apparent. But journalism needs to regain that kind of passion in responding to the great Indian challenge — how to overcome the greatest mass of hunger and under-nutrition in the contemporary world.