The most serious threat to availability of foodstuff in India could come not from any shortage, but from an overzealous bureaucracy….There is an urgent need for the Centre to issue clear directions to the states that they should not impose any border restrictions on movement.
A virus is now testing the ability of all countries to manage the health of their population and save their economies from a collapse. This includes the most powerful nations who sell fighter planes and latest generations of weapons to countries who can hardly afford it. However, even they have witnessed a run on their supermarkets for grocery and food items.
India has done rather well in managing its food supplies in the middle of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. So far, there are hardly any reports of shortage of foodstuff. The challenge is to manage the supply of food and essential items even if the lockdown is extended beyond March 31.
So, what should we expect in the next few weeks?
India has a wide network of 533,897 fair price shops spread across the country. The central government allocates 35 kg wheat and rice (at Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg) to 23.8 million Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) families. About 710 million persons, (classified as priority households) are provided 5 kg wheat and/or rice. This meets about half of the monthly requirement.
The central government is having excessive stock of wheat and rice and there is shortage of storage space for Rabi procurement, which will peak in three weeks. The Centre can easily increase the allocation of AAY families from 35 kg to 70 kg per month as these are the poorest of the poor and most deserving of all the households.
Previous evaluation studies have found least leakage and diversion in this category. Food subsidy to the AAY households was Rs 4,271.76 crore in 2016-17. If their entitlement is raised to 70 kg, it may mean extra expenditure of about Rs 5,000 crore in a year which can be easily absorbed by the Centre.
There is enough availability of pulses and edible oils in India. If their supply chain is not disturbed by random orders of the state governments (or district collectors), there is no reason why there should be any shortage of food items in kirana shops.
Supply of milk in urban areas is maintained by Amul or state dairy federations or private dairies. There is no possibility for any shortage as the supply chain is well maintained from the dairy farmer to the end consumer.
Pulses and edible oils are also available in plenty and Rabi crops of chana and mustard are already arriving in the market. So, there should be no occasion for any shortage of these two staple commodities as well.
Supply of fruits and vegetables in urban areas would be easily maintained by farmers through a much-maligned mandi system.
If the spread of Covid-19 is contained by restrictions in the large cities and the badly affected 75 districts, India’s food security faces no challenge from Covid -19.
However, the most serious threat to availability of foodstuff could come not from any shortage, but from an overzealous bureaucracy. On March 20, the Centre asked the states to exempt warehousing, logistics and services operations of e-commerce from any prohibitory orders. In the meantime, several states and UTs have issued orders restricting commercial operations and movement under the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 or Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.
Though they have exempted food items and groceries, the food industry is already reported to be facing restrictions on running their factories and businesses as local officers at district level in several states are imposing restrictions on warehousing and movement of labour and trucks.
For example, West Bengal has issued orders on March 22 that no non-essential item will be permitted to enter the state. However, it has not been specified as to what is non-essential. Such vague orders will surely be interpreted by local officials to impose restrictions on movement of food items also.
There is an urgent need for the Centre to issue clear directions to the states that they should not impose any border restrictions on movement. Similarly, mandi operations, warehousing, storage, movement and processing of food products should not be brought under any restrictions.
There are large number of people in the un-organised sector who would not be earning enough to buy food, even though it is available in the market. It is for the state governments to reach out and arrange community kitchens in cities. For this, help of NGOs may be necessary. Delhi, Kerala, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh have taken some initiatives to assist vulnerable families by direct assistance. Other states also need to urgently identify and take care of the workers in informal sector who would be the suffering the worst impact of shut downs.
It is expected from all food business operators that they are ensuring that the persons handling food at any stage are not showing any symptoms of Covid-19, and if any such cases are detected, strict measures to isolate them have been taken.Siraj Hussain retired as Union Agriculture Secretary, and is currently Visiting Senior Fellow, ICRIER. Views are personal.