New Delhi: The Union government will release an extra 2.5 million tonnes (mt) of wheat and rice into the Public Distribution System (PDS) over the next six months as an interim measure to ensure food security, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar said on Thursday.
The additional foodgrain will be released into the system at the price fixed for people below the poverty line (BPL), Pawar said at the end of a meeting of empowered groups of ministers (eGoM), which examines different dimensions of the proposed National Food Security Act.
The current BPL price of wheat is Rs4.15 per kg and that of rice is Rs5.65 per kg.
As on 1 July, the Centre stocked 25.95 mt of foodgrain above the buffer stock and reserve norms. According to data presented in Parliament, it costs the Union government about Rs27 crore a day to carry this surplus stock. The release of some of the stock into the distribution system would partially offset the carrying cost of surplus foodgrain.
Simultaneously, the government is working on a way to increase the number of families categorized as BPL, Pawar said.
The government’s current estimate is that there are 65.2 million BPL families in India; a number based on a population projection of March 2000. Most states have claimed the current BPL number is higher.
Pawar had reportedly suggested that the ministry could release excess foodgrain in the godowns to the states on the basis of the Suresh Tendulkar committee’s estimate of BPL families—81 million—instead of the current cardholders of 65.2 million. The number will be around 77.1 million, said an official, who did not want to be named.
However, a quick solution seems unlikely as the issue has got caught in political wrangling within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
While the Congress leadership is keen to showcase the food security issue as its own achievement, Pawar is believed to be upset as he feels his efforts to find a solution to the crisis have been undermined by the ruling party, politicians said.
Thursday’s eGoM was also supposed to discuss the 31 August Supreme Court order that the government distribute foodgrain for free instead of letting them rot. The next hearing is scheduled for 6 September. Pawar declined to take questions on the court’s observations and the government’s likely response.
Minister of state for agriculture K.V. Thomas had said that the government needs to work out the details of implementing the 31 August apex court order. He also pointed out that a subsidy component of Rs8-12 is involved with every kilogram of foodgrain distributed.
According to government data, at least 11,708 tonnes of foodgrain worth Rs6.86 crore were found damaged in various godowns in the country till July.
The Supreme Court order suggesting the government should follow the proposals of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) has given a fillip to the party’s efforts to ensure food security, according to at least two Congress leaders, who did not want to be identified.
On 30 August, NAC discussed in detail options on the National Food Security Act, which is expected to ensure 25kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs3 per kg for the poor.
“Our party president (Gandhi) has been pushing the government for legislation. She is even countering her party-led government’s stance on financial constraints and heavily lobbying for the speedy implementation of the Bill,” said a Congress minister on condition of anonymity.
NAC, however, recently reiterated support for a comprehensive legislation on food security. The body serves as the political interface between the government and the Congress.
The same minister blamed Pawar for “the delay in taking actions, allowing the crisis to reach this stage”. He said: “Had the minister taken adequate steps in time, the crisis, including the rotting of food in the godowns, could be avoided.”
Pawar is leaving on Friday for an almost two-week-long trip to Brazil, Mexico and Argentina to discuss agricultural research with officials there. His Nationalist Congress Party maintained that the decisions were taken collectively by the cabinet.
“The bumper crops and the surplus stock are the results of healthy policies taken by the agriculture ministry,” said T.P. Peethambaran Master, general secretary of the party.