The Centre has turned down a demand from drought-affected States to raise the number of assured rural jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme from 100 to 200 days as drought relief.

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Friday ruled out raising the limit of 100 days of assured employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as demanded by several drought-affected States.

“This is a demand-driven scheme. One need not fix a target of 150 or 180 days and in the end find that there are no takers,” Mr. Mukherjee told a meeting of State Agriculture Ministers here. The meeting was convened by Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.

Mr. Mukherjee, who heads the Empowered Group of Ministers on Drought, however, asserted that given the “extraordinary” drought situation in the country, the government would import, if need be, commodities that were in short supply. The ban on export of essential items would continue.

With enough buffer stocks in hand and India’s expertise in handling the drought situation, the country would tide over the situation. However, the shortfall in kharif production might fuel inflation in food items, he warned.

“The decision is already there that whichever commodity is in short supply, to maintain the demand-supply mechanism, we will go for imports.” India was not going to publicise its plans as it would jack up international prices, Mr. Mukherjee said.

On Wednesday the government declared 246 of 600-odd districts in 10 States drought-affected due to 26 per cent deficiency in monsoon rainfall.Mr. Mukherjee warned that scanty rainfall had a “cascading effect” not only on crop productivity but on water levels in reservoirs and recharge of groundwater. He advised States to pool all resources to convert “adversity to advantage” by growing crops that required less water and fodder.

Addressing the meeting, Mr. Pawar said it was necessary to save the standing crops. Wheat should be sown in time, particularly in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, to make up for kharif losses. It is estimated that there would be a decline of 10 million tonnes in kharif rice output.

With a shortfall in sugar production this year, the Minister said “it was difficult” to say whether sugar prices would fall before the festival season. The sugar industry had agreed to offer 30 lakh tonnes as levy sugar for distribution under the Public Distribution System.

The meeting adopted an Action Plan wherein the Centre and the States agreed to cooperate in mitigation of drought.

Speaking to journalists, Mr. Pawar said he would request the Prime Minister to convene a meeting of the National Development Council to discuss poverty estimates on which there were differences between the Centre and the States.

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