Jean Dreze is Professor, Centre for Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics. He has co-authored a number of books with Amartya Sen and is a member of the support group of the Right to Food campaign, an informal network of organisations and individuals committed to the realisation of the right to food in India. The Hoot talked to him about how critical the media is to the tackling of chronic hunger in India.

Jean Dreze 1. Are drought conditions worse today than they were a few months ago, and if yes, is that urgency sufficiently reflected in the media?

Drought conditions usually reflect a failure of the monsoon, and tend to get worse until the next monsoon. This year is no different in that respect. One qualification is that, in irrigated areas, a good rabi crop has made up to some extent for crop failures during kharif. It is in unirrigated areas that the situation is getting worse month after month, with strong prospects of further intensification of human hardships during the summer.

This urgency is inadequately reflected in the media. Media interest in the drought nearly died out after abundant rains in late August and September created an impression that the drought was over. Meanwhile, however, there had been massive crop failures in many areas, especially (but not only) Rajasthan. The revised economic estimates published in last month's Economic Survey bring out the seriousness of the drought. Quite likely, there will be a revival of media interest a couple of months from now, when the stage is set for harrowing pictures of dead cows, emaciated children and famished labourers. Hopefully, committed journalists will visit drought-affected areas before the situation becomes critical.

2. What can be done to enhance media interest in these issues?

Media concerns can be substantially influenced by skilful activism. Media coverage of hunger and related issues has considerably increased during the last couple of years.

 •  Covering the Republic of Hunger

I think that one important lesson from the Right to Food campaign so far is that media concerns can be substantially influenced by skilful activism. Media coverage of hunger and related issues has considerably increased during the last couple of years, and not just because of the drought. Also, there is a useful shift of attention from starvation deaths to chronic hunger, which is absolutely essential if the problem of endemic under-nutrition in India is to be tackled with adequate resolve. I am not suggesting that this surge of media interest in hunger-related issues is due to the Right to Food campaign alone, but I do think that the campaign has contributed to it. In all media outfits, there are committed and open-minded journalists who respond positively when they are presented with engaging material on social issues.

3. You were involved in organising a public hearing on hunger in Delhi in January. What sort of impact did it have? How did its achievements differ from those of public hearings organised elsewhere in the country by the Right to Food campaign?

The Delhi hearing was the first "national" action of the campaign. It lifted the campaign to a higher plane, and helped us to reach out to new constituencies. As a strong expression of popular concern about hunger and the right to food, the hearing helped to put the issue on the political agenda. For instance, mainstream political parties are beginning to show serious interest in this issue. The Delhi hearing was also an opportunity for members of the campaign from all over the country to meet face to face. It acted as a springboard for a new campaign on the right to work, which is now building up in several states.

4. Do you have any observations about recent media coverage of the social aspects of the 2003-4 budget?

I was in the field when the budget was presented, and missed the whole debate. When I read the papers a week later, I was shell-shocked, for two reasons. First, this budget is a budget of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. There is virtually nothing in it for the poor, except for a welcome expansion of the Antyodaya programme (even that, however, fell far short of the Food Ministry's recommendations). Even the traditional pro-poor sops are missing, and there are ominous elements here of a roadmap for the privatization of social services. Second, it seems that these aspects of the budget were barely noticed in the debates that followed. With few exceptions, all the "experts" who were invited to comment by, say, major dailies were corporate leaders. Predictably enough, most of them applauded the exercise. Only a few committed journalists swam against the stream and drew attention to the elitist biases of the budget.

5. Do you see a connection between invisibility in the media and state inaction?

Certainly. Lack of media concern for hunger and related issues makes it that much easier for the state to get away with doing nothing. A striking example is the neglect of health matters in the media as well as in public policy. India's infant mortality rate has virtually stagnated during the last five years or so, yet the problem is barely discussed, let alone addressed. In fact, it has gone virtually unnoticed. This is a matter of supreme importance for the nation, but somehow it escapes the policy-making elite. Media interest in this matter could certainly be fostered through skilful activism, and this would make it harder for the government to ignore the problem. As things stand, however, a deafening silence surrounds the whole issue.