Two key issues Budget-2011 is seen as having failed to address are inflation and mass hunger. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced in his budget speech that the long-promised National Food Security Bill would be moved in Parliament “during the course of this year” but failed to make any financial allocation to back up this statement. Against the backdrop of fresh warnings by experts that the outlook is grim given the continuing West Asian crisis and its impact on oil prices and inflation, this failure is politically inexplicable, especially considering that elections to Legislative Assemblies of four States and one Union Territory are round the corner.
Significantly, a number of mainstream newspapers across the country have editorially called attention to this failure. In a leader on the budget, The Hindu registered its unhappiness that “the big idea of food security that was announced in the last budget is still to be operationalised with differences having cropped up between the National Advisory Council and the government on the target group, extent of coverage, and the estimates of the outlays that will be called for.” It called upon the government to finalise and put in place “this very worthwhile programme over the next few months.” It expressed its unease over the Finance Minister's indication that the government was considering moving to a system of direct cash transfers. In two insightful articles on the subject, one published in Frontline and the other in The Hindu, the economist Jayati Ghosh explained why direct cash transfers, the new mantra, could not possibly be the answer to the problem of mass hunger and deprivation in India. She strongly criticised the tendency in current government policy thinking to see cash transfers, which at best could be a supplementary benefit, as a substitute for the public provision of essential goods and services.
The New Indian Express took sharp issue with “the silence of the Minister on inflation, deficit and corruption.” The Times of India argued that “mega-schemes like food security need better preparation to be executed well,” adding that “be it schools, hospitals or basic amenities, poor service delivery, not lack of money to throw around, hobbles efforts.”
An opinion page article in DNA noted that “the common man is unhappy about the indifference shown by the government to basics like inflation and rising prices.” The writer, who spoke with a cross-section of people, found that many of them were unhappy that the budget had not done enough to fight the rising costs of food items and inflation. A woman the writer spoke to said: “The prices of fruits and milk are going up day by day. I need to give good nutrition to my growing daughters. But the skyrocketing prices are forcing us to reduce the consumption of fruits from daily to thrice a week.” It is good that people are becoming more aware of the need for improved nutrition and healthy diets but the brutal impact of food inflation on the daily lives of families that belong to the middle or lower middle classes is captured poignantly in this bit of information. The plight of those who live in extreme poverty can well be imagined.
The issue of food security for all remains unresolved at the policy level — with the government bent on confining the benefits of food security to people below the poverty line and Congress president Sonia Gandhi apparently batting on the side of the advocates of a universal public distribution system in the United Progressive Alliance's National Advisory Council (NAC). Over the past two years, several rounds of deliberation within the NAC failed to produce a good enough set of ideas for a Food Security Act. What is clear is that after all this effort, the government remains far from convinced of the financial feasibility, or indeed the need, for extending the benefits of a PDS beyond a targeted number that grossly underestimates the prevalence of hunger and deprivation across the length and breadth of India.
Even the diluted recommendations of the NAC were not acceptable to the C. Rangarajan Committee, appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to advise him. All the NAC was able to do was to get its views published in the newspapers just ahead of the budget. Harsh Mander, head of the NAC's working group on the National Food Security Bill, made this brave statement: “We have been given the full mandate to go ahead with framing the Bill based on our own recommendations.” He added that the NAC's view of its job was to “advise” the government and “not to be influenced” by its predilections. Where this leaves the issue of food security is anyone's guess.
At stake here are the lives and welfare of hundreds of millions of people, including children. At stake here is inter-generational equity and the future of ‘rising India.' But within the corridors of government there is absolutely no sense of urgency about tackling mass hunger at a time of deadly inflation. This is certainly an area where the media could do much more by way of agenda-building — and stepping up the pressure on the system for the public good.
The article was corrected for a factual error.