Proverbially, charity may well begin at home, but not for the upa government or its commerce and agriculture ministries. Why else would 10 lakh metric tonnes of non-basmati rice be exported to ‘needy’ African nations in 2008-09 when food secretaries of four states—Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Chhattisgarh—were sending soses to the Centre seeking more rice for their public distribution system (PDS)?
But far from heeding their pleas, the Centre actually facilitated the export (despite a ban on non-basmati rice from India being sold in the international market) of the grain by a clutch of private trading companies, resulting in a Rs 2,500-crore scam exposed by Outlook in its last issue (Whose Name on a Grain of Rice?). The exposé created a furore in Parliament, with D. Raja of the CPI and Balbir Punj of the BJP raising it in the Rajya Sabha and JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav asking for a CBI inquiry in the Lok Sabha. What incensed the MPs the most was the fact that the government allowed a select band of private companies to procure rice at cheap prices at home and make a killing in the international market at a time when there was a national shortage. The government has, in fact, admitted to discrepancies in export of non-basmati rice in court (see box).
Outlook has sourced letters the state governments wrote to the Centre asking for urgent allocation of rice. Some had communicated their need as early as mid-2007. In the case of Bihar, both Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and chief secretary Jayamohan Pillai wrote seeking urgent intervention. Nitish Kumar, in his letter of April 19, 2008, wrote that “scant allocation of foodgrains for APL (above poverty line) families will make it extremely difficult to distribute the same in any rational manner. Against the backdrop of the rising trend of foodgrain prices, it becomes more imperative for the state to ensure that its citizens are not deprived of their due entitlements of foodgrains at subsidised rates”. The Bihar chief secretary wrote again in November 2008, indicating there were no stocks of rice in the godowns of 18 districts and asked for it to be made available on time.
Bihar was not the only one complaining. West Bengal made a case for greater distribution of grains, as did Chhattisgarh. From West Bengal, it was the food secretary who in 2007 wrote asking for greater allocation, especially in view of the high prevailing rates of rice, hindering the functioning of the PDS. In the case of Chhattisgarh, it was the commissioners attached to the Supreme Court who highlighted the problems of reduced allocation of rice. “The reduction of APL quotas will deepen the regional imbalances in food security,” the commissioners reported.
In Assam, food secretary Mohammed Allauddin has been writing letters over the last few months highlighting the shortfall between the state’s requirements and the procurement from the Centre. “We have written to the Centre a number of times asking for more bpl and APL rice,” he told Outlook. “As per our requirements, we need 42,070 MT per month but get 39,602 MT per month. In the case of rice meant for the APL category, the state requires 1,05,203 MT per month, but gets only 34,248 per month. We simply do not have enough.”
And though Kerala might not have put it in writing, the state too faced a shortfall of rice in the APL category. The state PDS minister, C. Divakaran, who met Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar recently, says the state requires 40,000 MT per month but gets just 10,000 MT. “It seems the government is gradually cutting down rice in PDS outlets even as it talks about the right to food. But for whom?” he asks.
What is most ironic is that these state governments were unaware that rice was being exported even as they were facing a shortage. Curiously enough, a note for the consideration of the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) in April this year appears to have provided the reason for the export of grain by the commerce ministry. To quote: “The department of agriculture and cooperation has projected the rice production at 98.99 million tonnes, which is above the target of 97 million tonnes set for the year. In view of this bumper rice crop during 2008-09, various agencies have been making requests to the government for permission to export non-basmati rice in order to pass on the benefits to farmers and cultivators. The quantity involved is very small and will not affect the availability of rice in the country and will go a long way in establishing India as a reliable supplier of certified products in the international market.”
It is these projections that are misleading, says the Supreme Court-appointed food commissioner, N.C. Saxena. According to him, emphasising the share of surplus states and large farmers in food production results in an illusion of surplus. If this is exported, it reduces the availability of foodgrains in PDS outlets. “A bumper crop at the national level does not translate into largesse for the states,” he says. “The whole objective of a public distribution system is to enable states with surplus foodgrains—such as Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh—to share them with deficit states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, UP and others. A case should be made for importing more quantity of broken rice from countries like Thailand and Vietnam whose per capita production of rice is higher than their consumption.”
Non-availability of foodgrains in state godowns usually means low per capita consumption in grain-deficit states of the country. A fact acknowledged by the Economic Survey when it notes that the per capita consumption has actually come down from 490 grams in the ’80s to 440 grams now. Add to this low calorie consumption and you know why the rates of malnutrition in the country are so high. Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation records 28 per cent of India’s population as below the poverty line and malnutrition is as high as 35 per cent in Bihar and Chhattisgarh.
Under the Constitution, Article 21 guarantees the fundamental right to life and personal liberty which has to be read with the right to food—in short, it is the legal obligation of the government to provide subsidised food for the poor. But what does one do when the government ignores shortages in its own country and forces 10 lakh metric tonnes on African nations it identifies as needy, just so that a few private players can make easy moolah? Despair.