A row over rice in Karnataka

The Centre’s denial of rice to the State government has kept the political pot boiling

Updated - June 28, 2023 01:59 am IST

Published - June 28, 2023 12:15 am IST

 Karnataka Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy and Congress leaders stage a protest in Bengaluru on June 20, 2023 against the Central government’s refusal to release rice to implement the State’s Anna Bhagya scheme.

Karnataka Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy and Congress leaders stage a protest in Bengaluru on June 20, 2023 against the Central government’s refusal to release rice to implement the State’s Anna Bhagya scheme. | Photo Credit: ANI

In just over a month since the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government came to power in Karnataka, a row over “denial” of rice by the Centre for Anna Bhagya, one of the State government’s flagship programmes to be launched on July 1, has kept the political pot boiling.

The Centre’s flip-flop over the supply of more rice to the State has not only led to a slugfest between the Congress and BJP, but has likely derailed the launch. Besides, the cost of implementation, estimated to be around ₹10,000 crore, is likely to go up.

Karnataka is now looking at other sources to procure 2.29 lakh metric tonnes of rice per month. This is the amount it requires to provide five kg of free rice per person to over 4.42 crore intended beneficiaries or 1.19 crore households, who are BPL (below poverty line) and Antyodaya card-holders in the State. The five kg of rice under Anna Bhagya is over and above the five kg that is given by the Centre under the National Food Security Act to the poorest of the poor.

Under pressure from the Opposition parties, which have started questioning the delay in implementing the five pre-poll guarantees of the Congress, the Karnataka government scheduled the launch of these schemes. Earlier in May, the first Cabinet had given in-principle approval to implement them. One of the five guarantees, Anna Bhagya, is the only scheme for which the Congress government is dependent on the BJP government at the Centre. Its launch is now uncertain owing to the unavailability of rice and the high cost of implementation.

Just about a fortnight before the launch, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which had agreed to supply to the Karnataka government the required quantity, refused to do so a day later, saying it had “to maintain sufficient stocks for market intervention”. While the State has bought rice from the FCI under the open market sale scheme (OMSS-Domestic) for supply to the Anna Bhagya scheme earlier, when 7 kg of rice per person was given, the Centre barred States from participating in the OMSS-D in mid-June as part of anti-inflationary measures.

Stung by the response, the government, which was hoping to get a kg of rice at ₹36.60 from the FCI, cried foul and said it was not asking for rice free of cost. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah termed the decision as “anti -poor and based on the politics of hate”, and accused the Centre of conspiring to “scuttle” Anna Bhagya. His Cabinet colleagues also attacked the BJP for denying rice to a pro-poor programme. Simultaneously, Mr. Siddaramaiah also appealed to Home Minister Amit Shah to intervene and ensure supply to Karnataka. This too, however, failed to break the deadlock as the Centre categorically informed Karnataka that rice could not be supplied, igniting another round of heated exchanges. Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies Minister K.H. Muniyappa said that the Centre’s requirement for national supply was 135 lakh metric tonnes of rice whereas it was sitting on a stock of 262 lakh metric tonnes.

While the Centre has refused to sell rice to Karnataka, the BJP’s State unit, which seems to be in a turmoil after the electoral drubbing, is mounting pressure on the Congress government. It has said it would begin protests if anything less than 10 kg of free rice is supplied, or the launch of the scheme is delayed. The BJP has accused the Congress government of wilfully delaying the launch and trying to shift the blame on the Centre. It has urged the government to either purchase rice from the market or transfer cash to the beneficiaries. The Janata Dal (Secular) has criticised the Congress for being ill prepared before such a big announcement was made.

Meanwhile, Karnataka’s search for rice in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and West Bengal did not yield the desired results due to factors such as high cost or non-availability. It has so far refrained from speaking to the Karnataka Rice Millers Association and therefore steered clear of any potential allegations of corruption in procurement. The State is now looking at national cooperative agencies such as NAFED, NCCF and Kendriya Bhandar that have indicated their readiness to supply rice. However, the cost remains a concern as State will have to incur additional money on transportation, which will in turn increase the overall cost of implementing the scheme. Today’s Cabinet meeting will be crucial as decisions on the date of launch and cost of implementation of the project will be taken.

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