More than two years have passed and there seems to be no progress worth speaking about in making the promised law that will guarantee food for the people. The promise came from the UPA-2 as part of its election manifesto in 2009. It was a time of recovery from a time of economic troubles. The impact of the global economic slowdown came on top of the agrarian crisis and the closure of several industrial undertakings, resulting in the loss of jobs and wage cuts that impoverished thousands of workers.
Economists have warned of yet another economic crisis, which may turn out to be more severe than the 2008 financial crisis and recession. Nearer home, the Reserve Bank of India has warned of higher inflation and a slowdown in economic growth. The food inflation rate is dangerously close to 10 per cent.
Seen in this context, the need to speed up the process of providing food security to hundreds of millions of people, whose ranks are likely to increase in the months to come, stands out. The news media have a role to play in meeting this challenge. Last year, it was a news report in a national daily that drew the attention of the highest court of the land to the fact that thousands of tonnes of wheat and rice were rotting in warehouses. The Supreme Court of India gave a direction to the government that if it could not store the grain, it could give it to the people to eat.
The 2010 Global Hunger Index shows that India holds the 67th rank among 122 developing countries. It has also stated that “serious hunger” is prevalent in all the States. According to the Index, 42 per cent of the world's underweight children live in India. A 2005 study showed 46 per cent children under three years of age were underweight. These studies bring home the point that the food security law must urgently ensure not just food — but nutritious food.
Following several rounds of discussion at various levels for about two years, the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on Food cleared the Food Security Bill in the second week of July 2011. The Bill seeks to cover 75 per cent of the BPL (Below Poverty Line) population and 50 per cent of the urban population. The Bill thus entitles 68 per cent of the country's population to food security. Each beneficiary under the BPL (now renamed the priority sector) will be entitled to 7 kg of food grains; rice will be provided at Rs. 3 a kg and wheat at Rs. 2 a kg. In the general category, each identified beneficiary will be given 3-4 kg at half the minimum support price the government pays to the farmers from whom they procure rice and wheat. The government plans to introduce the Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament after consulting Chief Ministers. The total subsidy is estimated to be in the region of Rs. 95,000 crore.
The final bill appears to be a heavily doctored version of the draft presented by the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Congress President Sonia Gandhi. For instance, although the NAC proposed that 90 per cent of the rural population must be covered for food security, the official draft has reduced the coverage to 75 per cent. The UPA government's refusal to accept the Universal Public Distribution System recommended by several experts in the field has come under sharp criticism from political leaders and social activists. Another major criticism is against the cash transfers system, which will only place the beneficiaries at the mercy of retailers.
The Bill in its present form may not be acceptable to many State governments, which follow much better norms in defining the beneficiaries as well as their entitlements. Even the Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, C. Rangarajan, who was against the inclusion of APL households among the beneficiaries has apparently changed his stand and said that they could be given legal entitlements, though with a lesser quantity of food grains. There are some positive elements in the Bill such as the inclusion of the mid-day meal scheme among the beneficiaries and the provision of cooked and nutritional food for pregnant and lactating women. But among those who were actively working for a strong and effective Food Security Act, there is an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and being let down.
The news media, particularly the Indian language press and television channels, can still play a more informative and insightful pro-active role in educating readers and audiences on the vital issues at stake. Nothing can bring out the social responsibility role of the media than the challenge of covering mass deprivation and building a public agenda to overcome massive social deficits on the food and nutrition fronts.