Rice schemes and media cynicism

BY MELWYN PINTO| IN Regional Media | 15/07/2013
Why are any populist measures by the government, especially those benefitting the poor, always criticised by the media?
Isn’t it the government’s moral responsibility to side with the poor and work for their welfare? Asks MELWYN PINTO. PIX: Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah

On Wednesday, July 10, Chief Minister of Karnataka Siddaramaiah launched the flagship programme of the Karnataka government called Anna Bhagya (rice fortune). It is a scheme under which 30 kgs of rice (per person) will be distributed to the people in the below poverty line (BPL). The scheme comes ahead of the implementation of the National Food Security scheme slated to come alive sometime in August. Under the Anna Bhagya scheme, over 8.7 lakh BPL families in Karnataka will receive rice for Re 1. An estimated 245,511 metric tons of rice per month is needed to materialise this scheme and the government seems quite confident of meeting the target. Fortunately for them, over 144 thousand metric tons of rice will be supplied by the Centre. All this will mean that the state government has to set aside Rs 430 crore per month just to meet the cost of rice. However, Karnataka is not the first state to implement such a scheme. Tamil Nadu, for several years now, has been distributing 20 kgs of rice free of cost to all the ration card holders. Even Andhra Pradesh has a Re 1 per kg rice scheme that covers over 7 crore people. So does Chhattisgarh which distributes 35 kgs of rice to almost the entire population.

However, Siddaramaiah’s scheme has come under much criticism from the opposition parties as well as some intellectuals. A member of an opposition party even mocked the chief minister in the Legislature composing his own parody of a poem written by a great Kannada poet.

‘Rice politics’

The major criticism has been that the scheme of distributing free rice would make people ‘lazy’ and that it would be a ‘huge burden on the state exchequer’. The criticism by the opposition parties is understandable as they are there to criticise the government. However, a section of the media, especially some of the overtly right-wing vernacular newspapers, was highly cynical as well as sceptical about the Anna Bhagya scheme. To prove a point, they gave undue front page coverage to the criticism by the opposition parties as well a section of the intelligentsia.

Hosa Digantha, a Kannada daily which does not shy away from its allegiance to RSS and its right wing ideology, in an editorial on July 12 said the chief minister was ‘bound to please the voters’. The editorial also had a ‘caveat’ to offer - that the scheme must not merely be a ‘publicity stunt’. Further, it added that if the Karnataka Land Reforms Act (brought about by the Congress) was in order, there would have been no need for such a scheme. The Land Reforms Act of 1974, introduced by the erstwhile chief minister Devaraj Urs, was hailed as exemplary and perhaps was one of the most successful Acts after Kerala. However, experience has shown that mere possession of a piece of land is no guarantee that a poor farmer can make ends meet. In north Karnataka, for example, for years now even those possessing a lot of land migrate en masse to cities in search of jobs. They invariably end up in the booming construction industry doing menial jobs. What has necessitated such a situation, among other things, is the series of droughts and crop failures over the years, coupled with the neglect of the region by successive governments. 

As pointed out by the editorial, while the issue of land reforms needs further attention, one cannot forget the land de-notification scam during the tenure of the previous (BJP) government in which former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa and several other ministers have been implicated and are still facing serious charges. De-notifying farmers’ land in the name of public utility and later illegally selling it to corporates and businessmen is a reversal of land reforms.

Kannada Prabha, another Kannada daily that has consistently taken an anti-Congress and pro-BJP stand, did not miss the opportunity to once again find a fault with the Congress government. Pratap Simha, news editor as well as a columnist for the paper wrote, as usual, a sarcastic and cynical piece on July 13 that had a lot of reference to the Anna Bhagya scheme. According to him, schemes such as food security and Anna Bhagya are the ones that ‘empty the state coffers’ and that the Congress is using them to ‘gain votes’. Through these schemes, he says, the government is only making people ‘eternal beggars stretching their hands before the government.’ He questions the end result of all such schemes, including MGNREGA. He declares, without referring to any substantial research, that MGNREGA has only worsened the agriculture sector by creating labour crisis. To crown it all, he thinks that ‘no one has reached a state of dying with hunger’ in this country and ‘such a situation (people dying of hunger) has not arisen in the past 15 years’ to warrant such schemes.

Of course, he sounds a determined campaigner against the Congress and is entitled to his views; but one wonders where Simha got his facts from in a situation where over 42 per cent of Indian children under the age of five are declared underweight by a UN study and 3000 children die of hunger on a daily basis. In fact, there is quite a bit of contradiction in Simha’s arguments. If in his wild fantasy he thinks that in the last 15 years there has not been a situation where people have died of hunger, then perhaps UPA rule in the last nine years must have positively contributed to it. And it is quite likely that schemes such as MGNREGA also would have made a significant impact. On the other hand, in his only mission to nail the Congress, he has conveniently avoided the fact that even a BJP-ruled state like Chhattisgarh distributes 35 kgs of rice for just Rs 2 to almost the entire population. The problem with journalists with coloured glasses such as Pratap Simha is that they can manufacture their own ‘facts’ to willy-nilly prove a point.

Udayavani, another Kannada daily, though did not editorialise on the issue, but on its front page report said, that the scheme was ‘ambitious’ and was a matter of ‘prestige’ for Siddaramaiah.

Even some English dailies did not shy away from using subtle cynicism in their expressions. The Times of India used expressions such as ‘rice politics’. The very first sentence in its front page report on July 10 read, “Rice is all set to change Karnataka politically.” The New Indian Express and The Hindu used adjectives such as ‘ambitious’ and ‘populist’ to describe the scheme.

A popular FM station, Radio Mirchi, even asked its listeners to ring up the station and voice what other things they would love to be given for Re 1, evoking varied expectations from the listeners ranging from shaving blade to a peg of whisky. The mockery seemed complete!

Any populist measures of the government, especially those benefitting the poor, are looked at suspiciously by a section of the media. It does not matter if poor people rightly deserve such benefits from schemes as they have only the government to come to their aid. However, why should any help done to the distressed be seen only as a means to win elections? Isn’t it the government’s moral responsibility to side with the poor and work for their welfare?

Take, for example, the MGNREGA, the flagship programme of the UPA I government. After eight years, the scheme, despite its many flaws, has turned out to be a breather for hundreds of distressed poor people. As expected, the people who benefited from it richly rewarded the UPA government by re-electing it. But, could this scheme be called just a poll strategy and that it had nothing to do with some genuine concern for the poor people?

‘Looting the taxpayer’

While any populist scheme that benefits the poor and distressed farmers in this country comes under much cynicism from all circles, all sops given to the corporates and the industry escapes even a cursory notice and evaluation by large sections of the media. Such benefits in general are seen as ‘important’ to help corporates to boost the economy. As P. Sainath points out, as much as Rs 31.11 trillion has been written off since 2005-06 by the Union Government for the super-rich ‘by way of corporate tax, excise and customs duties.’ Corporate media does not raise its eyebrows on these dole-outs, as it has itself partly benefited from such waivers. But any so called ‘freebies’ given to poor people are seen as ‘backward measures’.

Justice V S Malimath, former Chief Justice of Kerala High Court, said at a function in Bangalore that such a scheme would make poor people ‘lazy’. Most newspapers faithfully carried his views, some even on front pages. No newspaper raised questions as to how poor people would become lazy just by getting 30 kgs of rice, barring perhaps The Hindu, which made carried a news analysis on whether the scheme will indeed make poor people lazy.

Don’t they still have to earn money to buy groceries and vegetables? And what about the education of their children, health and such other needs? Former CFO of Infosys, T V Mohandas Pai, on the other hand, said the scheme would ‘loot the money of the tax payer’. So, going by his argument, any help rendered to the poor loots the taxpayer, and any waiver given to the rich perhaps does not loot the taxpayer, but is a reform measure. Large sections of media in Karnataka failed to question such strange logic.

The present scheme of the Karnataka government may, of course, have its ulterior motives. The forthcoming general elections could be an important factor determining the urgency with which the scheme has come into effect as winning at least 20 seats, if not more, of the total of 28 in Karnataka is crucial for the Congress. As rightly pointed out by Saritha Rai in The Indian Express, the rice scheme can go a long way for Siddaramaiah in achieving that goal, given the messy situation with the Congress in the other southern states. However, that does not in any way take the credit away from the scheme at a time when a sizeable population in Karnataka, as elsewhere, is starving.

Mohandas Pai would rather have the government spend such money on welfare schemes than rice. Poor people need both rice as well as welfare schemes. But, what they urgently need is rice. Famous Dalit Kannada writer and activist Devanur Mahadev rightly observes (as quoted in Times of India, July 10): “Governments are duty-bound to support the weak and free rice scheme is one of several ideas that can make people self-sustainable. Couplets and jokes reflect the cruel mind of the system in which we are living.”

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