The Director-General of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dr. Jacques Diouf, announced at the Inter-Governmental Committee on World Food Security (CFS) that the combination of global food crisis and economic recession had taken the number of people affected across the world to over one billion. He described the number as “unacceptably high,” higher than in 1996 when the heads of states and governments committed themselves to reducing hunger by half at the World Food Summit.

Dr. Diouf warned that widespread hunger, malnutrition, and poverty and the inability to protect vulnerable people from the effects of shocks pointed to a “structural, more profound” problem of food insecurity that required “urgent, resolute and concerted action.” He pointed out that “the world has to grapple with a declining rate of growth in agricultural productivity, including that of major cereals.”

Meanwhile, the Global Hunger Index 2010 (GHI) has put the number of undernourished people in the world around one billion, with “a striking divide between the haves and the have-nots.” India is placed among countries that face an “alarming” situation. The GHI has identified child under-nutrition as a major contributory factor behind “persistent hunger.”

No comprehensive bill yet

With hundreds of thousands of people pushed into food insecurity, mostly because of the government policy of gradually reducing state support to agriculture, and nearly 18 months after the UPA-2 committed itself to enacting a law to guarantee food security to all, the ruling coalition is yet to come out with a comprehensive bill on the subject. The latest recommendations by the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, have received mixed reactions from the media.

It may be recalled that an earlier version of the draft bill on the subject met with strong criticism from political leaders, experts, and social activists. It was then sent back to the Empowered Group of Ministers where it originated (Online and Off Line, June 7, 2010). The criticisms related to the quantity of subsidised cereals 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. Another major objection was that the entitlement was limited to food grains. Activists demanded the inclusion of other essential items such as pulses, edible oil, and sugar in the relief package. The strong criticism prompted the ruling coalition to revive the National Advisory Council on June 1 to take a fresh look at the problem and come out with a new draft bill. Many of the critics were included in the NAC.

After six rounds of discussion, the NAC sent its recommendations on the National Food Security Bill to the Working Group, which is expected to prepare a new draft bill.

The first and most significant recommendation seeks to break the reluctance of the central government to extend the benefits of statutory food security above the officially delineated poverty line. The NAC has 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 are 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) are 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) are to be entitled to a monthly quota of 20 kg. at a price not exceeding 50 per cent of the current Minimum Support Price for millets, wheat, and rice.

Where time is of the essence, the proposal to demarcate the population into ‘priority' and ‘ general' households will mean red tape, bureaucratic high-handedness, and delay in implementing a vital scheme. Experience teaches us that in such a system, the weakest and the poorest tend to be left out of the benefits. Phased implementation also weakens the concept of entitlement. Although there are recommendations relating to legal entitlements for child and maternal nutrition, provision for community kitchens, and so on, the enabling programmes are only to be developed “as soon as possible.”

Universal PDS is the obvious answer

The NAC's failure to go for a universal public distribution system, which many experts including Dr. M.S. Swaminathan have been advocating, suggested a loss of political nerve. The sound and progressive course would have been to learn from the successes of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in implementing a universal PDS or something close to it. A universal PDS, which ensures that nobody is excluded but where a process of self-selection will mean the well-off do not draw the benefits in any significant measure, is the obvious answer to the worst forms of mass hunger and chronic food insecurity. Unfortunately, as Jean Dreze, economist and NAC member, pointed out in his statement of dissent, 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.”

Media coverage of the big issues relating to the challenge of mass hunger, especially in the wake of the global crisis, has been, on the whole, sound. The case for early food security legislation was taken to the people. Major newspapers, in both English and Indian languages, have published regular reports and analytical articles on the contentious issues. The Hindu has played a leading role in this, with focussed and in-depth analytical coverage and clear-sighted editorial advocacy of a universal PDS. But there can be no room for complacency in this situation. Food insecurity on this gigantic scale in rising India must be seen in context, in its inter-relationship with other aspects of the political economy, especially the crisis of agriculture and livelihood in the rural economy. Researching these realities and the issues raised by them, and covering them interestingly and accessibly, is a big challenge and opportunity for socially responsible and enterprising journalism.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in