IT’S a problem of plenty that needs to be tackled promptly, lest it become a problem of scarcity. Amid the lockdown, the onus is on the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to provide adequate wheat and rice to meet the enhanced requirement of all states. Last week, the Centre had announced that 80 crore people would each get an additional 5 kg of wheat/rice free of cost per month for the next three months through ration shops as part of its relief package for the poor. Ever since the lockdown was imposed, the FCI has moved over 350 rakes carrying about 10 lakh tonnes of foodgrains from ‘surplus’ states such as Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh to ‘deficient’ states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Incidentally, UP and Bihar are the most notorious states in terms of large-scale corruption in the public distribution system (PDS), while West Bengal had witnessed riots in 2007, triggered by irregularities in the utilisation of food subsidy.
The FCI seems to be comfortably placed as far as the stocks are concerned. Till March 31, the Central agency’s godowns had over 55 million tonnes of rice and wheat, way above the stipulation of maintaining a reserve of about 21 million tonnes as on April 1. However, it will be a Herculean task for the states to manage the additional arrivals as most of them don’t have sufficient storage facility. In a recent report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had blamed two government agencies of Punjab for allowing wheat worth more than Rs 600 crore to rot in four years owing to inadequate storage arrangements.
The PDS will again be under sharp scrutiny as the authorities scramble to ensure that no genuine beneficiary is left out. If not nipped in the bud, foodgrain wastage and misappropriation could lead to a famine-like situation. The staples can reach the needy without any delay or leakage only if concerted efforts are made at all levels — right from the minister concerned to the village sarpanch. With wheat procurement set to begin later this month, albeit erratically, the grain glut is likely to become an even bigger issue. It will be a cruel irony if millions of people go hungry due to mismanagement of a good harvest.
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