When The Media Abdicates, The Government Abdicates

IN Media Practice | 31/08/2002
When The Media Abdicates, The Government Abdicates

When The Media Abdicates, The Government Abdicates

By Sevanti Ninan

One arm of the government shuts down relief works in areas where famine conditions prevail pleading lack of financial resources. Another arm decides surplus foodstock will be given to people above the poverty line at subsidised rates to enable speedy offtake of grain mountains before more procurement leads to new mountains building up. Would these ironies exist if the media was doing its job?

When a subject captures the media¿s imagination it does not stop covering it, whether it is President Musharraf coming to talk or Ritu Beri going to the Buddha Bar in Paris. The tragedy is that the people for whom media coverage could make the difference between starvation and getting enough to eat, seldom capture its imagination for long.

Surplus food stocks have been mocking the poor in India for at least a year. The media highlights this paradox only intermittently and certainly half-heartedly. The result is that government policy can reflect media abdication just as surely as it can be shaped by the media.

A few days ago the central government finally moved---after many months----to do something about the food mountains in the Food Corporation of India¿s godowns which have been estimated at 60 million tonnes. Why did it stir itself into action? Because it is about to acquire more mountains of food which it will not have the storage capacity for. What did it do? It announced that foodgrains would be sold at a subsidized price to those who are not below the poverty line, in order to enable off-take of the grains before the next harvest comes in. This announcement came just a couple of weeks after the Government of Rajasthan whose districts are worst affected had declared that is was shutting down drought relief works for lack of resources.

The poor need food, and the country has plenty of food reserves. But they don¿t have the purchasing power to buy it because in areas where there is drought there is also a slump in the labour market. If food reserves are so plentiful as to be creating a storage problem yet hunger is very much in evidence in some parts of the country, it stands to reason that your policies must address this paradox. But part of the reason why the food will now go at subsidised rates to those who are neither poor nor hungry instead of having been given a few months ago to those who are both is because there is virtually no sustained discussion in our newspapers on agriculture and food policy. Or for that matter on famine conditions which set in in February in some parts of the country and continue to prevail today.

Three years out of ten there has been a drought, but the Centre has no drought policy. How frequently does the media highlight this? Jean Dreze has been writing since February about the drought, the food stocks, and the poverty of policy which fails to use the grain to allay the hunger caused by crop failures and livestock losses. In March P Sainath in a cover story in the Hindu Sunday magazine described in vivid detail the circumstances of hunger-related deaths in districts of Southern Rajasthan. One family of six whose breadwinner eventually died, described how they rotated their hunger. They ate one meal on alternate days. For two months the family had almost no work.

The rest of the press was not cued in. Four national dailies and two business dailies surveyed by this website two weeks before and two weeks after the Union Budget had extremely meagre coverage of the drought, agriculture and food as issues. Barely 5 to 8 stories per paper in the entire month on all these subjects taken together. And this was the month in which the economy was in focus.

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