As the government grapples to handle mounting stocks of food grains, the food ministry wants to ensure that the least quantity of grain is left in the open before the onset of monsoon. In an interview with Sreelatha Menon and Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Food And Consumer Affairs Minister K V Thomas explains how this will be done
There has been some talk that the present storage scenario has been created because of a sharp hike in the minimum support price (MSP), which prompted farmers to plant wheat and rice in additional areas. Do you agree?
Between 2008-09 and 2011-2012, foodgrain procurement as percentage of production has risen 25 per cent in case of wheat and 23 per cent in case of rice. During the same period, wheat and rice production increased 12 per cent and seven per cent, respectively. The main reason for a higher increase in procurement is consistent increase in the MSP in the last few years. The MSP of paddy has doubled between 2005-06 to 2011-12 and the same is the case with wheat.
The other reasons are bonuses — over and above the central MSP — declared by some states on their own, and high rate of taxes on foodgrain procurement. All these factors have driven away private traders from the main grain markets of the country, making the government a sole purchaser of almost all the surplus. This, in turn, might have contributed to creating this unusual situation.
What is the status of the public distribution system (PDS) reforms in the states? Gujarat and Odisha have found e-solutions. How soon do you expect others to pick up?
Targeted PDS, or TPDS, is the shared responsibility of the Centre and the state governments. The Central government allocates highly subsidised food grains and makes them available to the states through the Food Corporation of India. Thereafter, it is the primary responsibility of the state governments to lift the grains on time and ensure delivery to fair price shops, and then to the final beneficiary, according to the entitlements.
As a result of the close coordination between the Centre and the states and the wide-ranging reforms, there has been a revival of TPDS.
A study done by scholars such as Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and others in nine states have found that major initiatives in the recent past to improve PDS are showing results. Most sample households are getting bulk, if not whole, of their entitlements. Most importantly, days when half of the PDS grain was diverted to the open market are gone. All these show that there has been an improvement in the PDS operations.
However, we are not sitting on that. The ministry has embarked on a massive drive for modernisation of PDS. Computerisation of PDS has been declared a Mission Mode Project.
By October this year, we hope to complete digitisation of all beneficiary data base, while computerisation of supply-chain management will be completed by March 2013. By the end of March 2014, all the ration shops across the country will be automated. Initiatives taken by Odisha and Gujarat are part of this nationwide effort.
The draft food security Bill talks of local distribution of grains. Do you have a strategy for this? Has any state begun this process? In some countries, food is collected locally and given away in various government-sponsored schemes, such as school feeding. Do you see that happening here?
Some states have adopted innovative ways to ensure distribution of food grains in a transparent manner, involving panchayat leaders, village elders and gram sabha in monitoring.
In Chhattisgarh, for instance, there is a ‘Chawal Utsav’ on the 7th of every month when distribution of food grains takes place. In Nashik, a system of periodic distribution of grains through the village community has been adopted.
The Centre on its part has been constantly advising the states to adopt decentralised procurement system, which ensures local preference for grains are met more economically.
On local supply of food grains for government-sponsored programmes, I would say under the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme, states have the option to source the foodgrain requirement from either the central pool or purchase it locally. More than 10 states and union territories are purchasing the grains locally. The draft National Food Security Bill also contains provision for support to local distribution models.
The food Bill has been delayed. When do you expect it finally?
After introduction of the food Bill in the Lok Sabha on December 22, 2011, it has been referred to the Standing Committee on Food. It is hard to fix a time frame for the Standing Committee. But, internally, we are gearing up to implement the Bill, and as soon as it becomes a law, we will implement it.
Are there plans to include vegetables, milk and eggs in the ambit of procurement and distribution? Is any state doing it?
No, there is no proposal before us to procure vegetables, milk or eggs for PDS.
The government has been considering food for work under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) at the highest level, according to the rural development minister. When are you expecting a decision? Your storage facilities are already bursting at the seams.
In view of the high level of stocks in the central pool, various options for liquidating these is being considered, and payment of a part of MGNREGA wage in terms of foodgrains is one of the option. I have written to the minister for rural development in this regard and I am awaiting his reply. From our side, we are keen to get this approved, as it would help in absorption of the stocks.
On storage, what kind of long-term planning does the ministry have to address issues related to stocking grains?
Well, let me assure you that we are doing everything to shore up the storage facility for grains in the country.
In 2012-13, an additional 3.8 million tonnes (mt) of storage capacity will be created, which is a part of the total 15 mt of new storage capacity being created under the PEG (private entrepreneurship guarantee) scheme across the country.
Last year, we created new capacity of 2.8 mt under the same scheme, of which almost one mt is already in use. In addition, the government is in the process of creating two mt of modern silos, within the overall storage capacity and construction of this is expected to start from mid-next year.