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Wheat imports: Congress farmers' wing cries foul

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

The farmers' wing of the Congress party has come down heavily against the government's wheat imports saying that it is being done amidst a surplus of wheat, even as the wheat is being bought from a company that is scam tainted, and with the purpose of filling "the pockets of unscrupulous agents.''
In a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, leader has attacked Agriculture Minister for engineering the imports despite a good harvest.
"Madam, unfortunately the food and agriculture ministries are now being handled by a leader of the NCP, which has least interest in preserving the farmer-friendly image of the Congress,'' Chaudhury says referring to
The farmers' unit, with members like former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jhakhar, says in the letter that the wheat imports of 3.5 million tonnes are totally unjustified.
Seeking immediate intervention of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Chaudhury indicts both Pawar and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who approved the imports.
"Agriculture Minister in consultation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has planned to import 3.5 million tonnes wheat, despite a good harvest of 73.06 million tonnes wheat. Only to justify the imports, the government recently scaled down its wheat production estimate to 71.54 million tonnes. There was no reports of damage to wheat crop in the current season due to adverse weather conditions. Rather the area under wheat crop has increased by 400,000 hectares as against that in the previous year. Even the government's revised estimate of 71.54 million tonnes is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the country."
He says that the artificial shortage of wheat has been caused because of stockpiling of wheat by private buyers and MNCs who have bought directly from farmers after paying about Rs 8,500 a tonne more than the minimum support price offered by the government at Rs 7,000 a tonne.
If the government were to raise its MSP, it could have competed with the private sector and bought what it wanted, instead of letting private companies hold the consumers to ransom, he said.
Attacking the government's choice of a "scam tainted" Australian company AWB, the letter says that "Government is purchasing 500,000 tonnes of wheat at $ 178.75 a tonne, when the same exporter had recently sold wheat at $ 131 a tonne... AWB Ltd has now quoted a price of $ 200 a tonne for supply of additional quantity of wheat."
Detailing the AWB's tainted record, the letter says, "AWB Ltd has already been accused of paying $ 300 million to Saddam regime in Iraq for supply of wheat and the matter is being investigated by the Cole Commission in Australia. AWB Ltd is also accused of paying similar kickbacks to the I K Gujral government for supply of wheat in 1998. It is clear that such imports are being designed to fill the pockets of unscrupulous agents," the letter says, casting dark hints on the ministry of agriculture.
Speaking to this paper, he said the government had even gone ahead and eased quarantine norms at the behest of AWB so that 12 alien weeds were imported along with the first instalment of wheat which arrived last month.
"We spent crores fighting a single weed (parthenium or congress grass) that came with Mexican wheat. And now we have got 12 weeds to oblige AWB," Chaudhury said.
"The wheat imports this year are the second after the 1998 imports ever since India achieved self sufficiency in wheat production in the 1960s," Chaudhury said.

First Published: Mon, June 12 2006. 00:00 IST