The 21-day lockdown has led to everyone asking one question: can India feed itself? Economists like Pronob Sen feel food riots can be a possibility and economic package announced by the government won't help the poorest. Dispelling such fears, Pawan Kumar Agarwal, secretary of consumer affairs and public distribution, tells Jyotika Sood that the country has enough buffer stocks besides the new stocks being harvested to meet the country’s needs. Edited excerpts:
Q) Do you agree with fears expressed in some quarters that we could see food riots in India?
Not only is the government both on national and state level pro-active but also extremely responsive everywhere else. Even the civil society is coming forward in this hour of need. I have absolutely no doubt that we are not going to face any food riots.
Q) How much buffer stock does India have?
It varies from commodity to commodity. As far as major commodities like rice, wheat, pulses and sugar are concerned we have enough stocks for 9-12 months. And since most of these food grains are locally produced and procured, every state is having its supply too. Besides, farm operations are not being affected by the lockdown, so as we move forward, fresh stocks will be built. However, the distribution is obviously a challenge. We are working very hard on it. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ guidelines on lockdown are extremely clear that food supplies are not to be disrupted and things are being channelized.
Q) What kind of arrangements have been made for essential food supplies?
All PDS beneficiaries are getting 5 kg each of wheat and rice per head per month and 1 kg of pulses. Many state governments are taking steps to address essential supplies and the focus is on home deliveries. For instance, Uttar Pradesh has deployed 20,000 mobile vans to ensure supplies to people. In Haryana, state roadway buses are being used for essential supplies. Kendirya Bhandars have deployed several vans in Delhi for home supplies. There are similarly other ways in which states are responding to the challenge of ensuring essential supplies.
Grocery stores are being operated 24x7 to ensure there is no crowding. We are also monitoring supplies through 10-15 big retailers and cash and carry format companies including Walmart and Metro so that the systems are in place. Our department is in touch with 50 top grocery and essential supply suppliers and they account for 65% of overall supplies of grocery. So, we are basically working with them to ensure supply chains are not disrupted.
Q) Given the challenge to ensure supply of essential commodities, what are the contingency plans?
Distribution and logistics besides front end or last mile supply had initially become an issue as there was absolutely no prior information when the lockdown was announced. After the disruptions for 1-2 days, the national and state machinery came into action to resolve these issues. Govt has established a high-powered group to look at supply chain and logistic issues.