India has enough food to feed its poor for 18 months  

Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, March 25: India will have enough grain stockpiles to feed its poor for at least a year-and-a-half as reserves are likely to further balloon after record harvests in the world’s second most populous nation. This country of 1,370 million has been locked down for three weeks, from midnight last night (March 24th) to check the spread of the coronavirus, the deadly global pandemic.

There will be no food shortage in the country, D.V. Prasad, Chairman of state-run Food Corporation of India (FCI), a government agency at the heart of the world’s largest public food distribution programme, said in an interview to Bloomberg.

The FCI will have 100 million tons in warehouses across India, by end-April, compared with an annual requirement of 50 million to 60 million tons under various welfare programmes for the poor. India is likely to produce a record 292 million tons of food grains in 2019-20.

Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), the government supplies 5kg of food grains each to over 800 million people at a highly subsidized price: wheat for INR 2 per kg, and rice at INR 2 per kg.

“There is absolutely no need to worry as far as the availability of wheat and rice is concerned in any part of the country,” Prasad declared. However, fair price shops, in many states, do not have the capacity to hold stocks, equal to several months of their needs, he said.

Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said, last week, that the beneficiaries of the Public Distribution System (PDS) can buy six months of their quota of subsidized grain immediately.

India, like other countries, is trying to curb the spread of the deadly virus by locking down provinces, stopping trains, flights and bus services, while ensuring supplies of staple commodities. America’s top food firms are rushing to meet a spike in demand as panic buying sets in, while sales of items, such as cereals and pasta, have surged in Russia. In Australia, hoarders were shamed as the nation’s biggest supermarket chain tightened buying limits.

There are concerns that consumers, in India, may rush to hoard essential commodities and prices may surge as the country locked down cities to break the chain of transmission of the virus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown for three weeks, beginning midnight last night, which will last till April 14.

The states may need to buy 30 million tons of wheat and rice from the federal government to meet their requirement for six months, Prasad said. Reserves maintained by the federal government may climb further after the arrival of the new wheat crop, by April, from about 64 million tons at present, he added.

State governments can draw food grains for three months from the Food Corporation of India,  on credit, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, via Twitter, Monday. This will ensure that the states do not face any cash constraint in distributing food to those in need.

The relief comes at a time that many states, like Kerala, Punjab and Delhi, have announced relief packages for the poorest sections of society, to protect them from the disruption in economic activity, arising out of the spread of COVID-19 in India, and the complete lockdowns announced by the states, to curb its spread.

The country’s food grain output is set to climb in 2019-20 to 292 million tons, from 285.2 million a year earlier, according to the farm ministry. The rice harvest is seen at all-time high of 117.47 million tons, while wheat production may rise to an historic high of 106.21 million tons.

The country has raised the government purchase price of Indica rice to encourage planting of two crops a year, on the same piece of land, to boost production in southern growing areas.

The informal economy has been hit the hardest, with many people belonging to the lowest income strata losing their jobs.

Ram Vilas Paswan, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, has pointed out that the government has more than adequate food grain supply.

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