New Delhi: Putting the Indian government in a diplomatic bind at a time when risingdomestic food prices are causing political problems, several countries from west and central Africa, as well as Sri Lanka, have appealed for humanitarian food assistance that potentially adds up to some 1 million tonnes (mt) of foodgrains.
Two government officials, who were familiar with the developments but did notwish to be identified, confirmed that requests from these countries had been received by the Prime Minister’s Office, the commerce ministry and the ministry of external affairs.
The requests were discussed by the committee of secretaries, an apex grouping of bureaucrats headed by the cabinet secretary, but no decision has been reached. The committee will, in turn, have to make a recommendation to the Union Cabinet.
“These countries have said that their sources (countries) for rice supplies have stopped exporting and have stressed that they are in dire need of rice. They have not asked for free rice but, have only said they need supplies to flow,” said an officer familiar with the development who didn’t want to be named. “The question is how do we respond to the humanitarian crisis due to the food shortages in Africa and at the same time ensure that we have adequate supplies for our own needs.”
Initial estimates made by the committee suggest that if India were to cater to all the requests, it would need to set aside around 1mt of rice. As on 6 April, India has 13.5mt of rice stored with the Food Corp. of India and state warehouses.
Due to a global shortage, international food prices have risen by 83% in the last three years and several countries, including India, have restricted exports of foograins.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has been battling inflationary pressures, largely on account of rising food prices. It has so far initiated several steps, including tariff reductions, to improve domestic supplies.
Historically, India has shared friendly relations with the African countries.
In April, for instance, India announced a duty-free, quota-free imports regime, from the developing countries of the world, 34 of which are in Africa. The move was aimed at building better relations with nations in a continent where China has stolen a march for natural resources.
“These are friendly countries, especially the African nations and the government would do its best to help them out. However, we will not export wheat,” said another government official.
According to the official, the government was considering a proposal to permit the export of 12.9mt of rice produced as part of the winter, or rabi, crop. Typically, bulk of Indian rice production is from the summer crop. “We don’t depend on the rabi rice and it can be spared,” this official added.