Policy priorities: rice for ethanol or hungry stomachs?

This abundant food-in-the-granary exigency will unfold even as a large number of Indians are grappling with hunger pangs and are  stuck in varying degrees of deprivation, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor

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The Modi government  arrived  at an incongruous decision on Monday (April 20)  when it allowed the conversion of surplus rice available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to ethanol. This decision was arrived at by a group of experts under the National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC) chaired by  Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan,  and there would have been compelling sector-specific reasons for arriving at this decision.

It is understood that the rice so diverted to grain-based distilleries will be converted to ethanol, which in turn will be used for making alcohol-based hand sanitizers and for blending in petrol. Clearly the covid 19 challenge has led to a review of the need to increase availability of hand-sanitizing products by all means and this may have been the trigger for this  NBCC decision.

Given that this rice is to be diverted from FCI surplus stocks at a time when migrant workers and the socio-economically vulnerable are dealing with a hunger crisis across the country  due to the national lockdown,  the government clarified that the disposal of such rice would be strictly monitored to “allay any misconception that food stock was wasted  for fuel, when millions of children remain malnourished.”

While more details ara awaited about the quantum of the surplus rice stocks that will be so disposed and the price for the same, the incongruity stems from the priority accorded to ethanol production when a hunger crisis is looming in many parts of the country. Lakhs of daily wagers and migrant labor across India have been rendered financially naked and have exhausted  whatever little money they may have had to keep body and soul together since the national lockdown announced on March 24.

While the central government has announced that it would provide 5 kg of wheat/rice  and one kg of preferred pulses free of cost to 800 million people for three months under  the National Food Security Act (NFSA), this scheme will not provide relief for instance to those migrant workers stranded in urban India and who are unable to return to their rural homes in other states, and a large number who do not have ration cards.  

Experts have highlighted the overflowing contour of the Indian buffer food stocks currently. The current stockpile of rice (including paddy which is yet to me milled) is estimated to be 49.15 million tonnes (mt)  as of April 1  and this is more than three times the prescribed buffer norm of 13. 58 mt. It is estimated that 15.4 million tons will be needed from the central pool to provide for the post covid scheme to provide additional 5 kg free rice  under the NFSA for six months.

Notwithstanding this commendable provision of providing some free food sustenance,  if India procures 40 mt rice this year, the stock of rice on April 1, 2021 is estimated to be about 39.4 mt, which is almost three times the recommended median.

This abundant food-in-the-granary exigency will unfold even as a large number of Indians are grappling with hunger pangs and are stuck in varying degrees of deprivation.  Intrepid reporters have brought the nation heart-rending images and news stories of those so afflicted and many have chosen to walk or pedal back to their homes. Some have died due to the sheer enormity of being rendered jobless-homeless and with no food and a few suicide cases have been reported.

Informed and  empathetic recommendations have been made by domain experts urging the government to release a small fraction of the surplus rice stocks free of cost to state governments or NGOs registered with the Niti Ayog and other established outlets to enable  an emergency provision of free food to those who are in dire need of such nutrition. A network of rice-dal kitchens could be envisioned and put into place in a relatively short period with existing national capacity – both within state agencies, the private sector and civil society. Yet this  decision to provide free rice to those who are in desperate need is not on the national anvil.

As regards the amount needed for hunger alleviation, in a persuasive review, former  Agriculture Secretary Siraj Hussain and noted economist Ajit Ranade have made a strong case for using FCI stock to feed the stranded migrant workers.  (“Utilise FCI stock for those who have ration cards and those who don’t” / Indian Express, April 6) and have noted that “For one crore individuals, for three weeks, the government needs to provide just about 75,000 tonnes of rice.”  Extrapolating from this benchmark, it may be assumed that  a million tonnes of rice can provide sustenance for more than  12 crore ( 120 million)  needy individuals over a 21 day period.

In all probability this entire amount of rice many not be utilized as calculated and yes, there will be leakages and pilferage and some transgressions may well occur. But announcing such provision and enabling those state governments that are providing such free food aid (Chattisgarh, Delhi ) will go a long way in reassuring the most needy citizen that the state is not devoid of compassion and will not remain indifferent to their plight.

In recent weeks some splendid voluntary work is being done across India by NGOs, committed citizens and resident welfare groups to feed those in distress. Over the last few days, one is personally aware of two groups – one in Gurugram and the other in Nizamuddin that have been helping feed the stranded migrant workers and their families. Their modest resources are based on contributions and both groups would more than welcome an infusion of a few hundred kilograms (not tonnes) of rice to augment what they are doing.

While rice for ethanol that will contribute towards hand sanitizers has its own relevance in this time of corona, releasing free rice to the most hungry Indian citizens rendered destitute by the covid lockdown must be accorded the highest priority.

(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)