CMs' meet on WTO today

NEW DELHI, MAY 20. The Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, has convened a meeting tomorrow of Chief Ministers on the impact of the World Trade Organisation on agriculture strategies and food management. The meeting is essentially to build a consensus on Government policies in farm and food management under the WTO regime and the lifting of Quantitative Restrictions on farm commodities from April 1.

Today, the Prime Minister invited for dinner the Chief Ministers who had arrived for the meeting. It is learnt that only the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. Rajnath Singh, the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr P.K. Dhumal and the Orissa Chief Minister, Mr. Naveen Patnaik, could make it. The Finance Minister, Mr. Yashwant Sinha, the Agriculture Minister, Mr. Nitish Kumar, and the Disinvestment Minister, Mr. Arun Shourie, were part of the dinner diplomacy which veered around issues emerging from the WTO agreement and State finances.

However, despite assurances from the Centre to safeguard the interests of farmers, on the ground, the farm sector is passing through a difficult phase as is evident from suicides by farmers in high production States like Punjab and Andhra Pradesh and the frequent interventions by the Centre to ensure remunerative prices for copra, paddy, wheat, pulses and other commodities. Most suicides have been by farmers who had gone in for cash crop. The cost of production remains high and investment and marketing avenues low.

The Centre will explain to the States India's position on Agriculture at the WTO and its proposals for the Agreement on Agriculture which emphasises the food security and livelihood aspect. The impact of lifting QRs, the measures taken by the Government to safeguard the interest of farmers and its assertion that import duties would be closely monitored are some of the assurances Mr. Nitish Kumar wants to give to the States.

India's latest focus in the WTO on market access, domestic support and export competition with non-trade concerns and special treatment dovetailed with some flexibility to discuss any other issue of interest to members.

The meeting is likely to be stormy as several State Governments are still imposing restrictions on free movement of foodgrains, even as the Centre has called for a Single Food Zone in the country.

Speaking to The Hindu, the Union Food Minister, Mr. Shanta Kumar, said the Centre would request the States to lift restrictions on movement of foodgrains and on stock limits. The States would be urged to implement the various schemes of the Ministry to get rid of the impression that on one hand India had surplus food stocks and on the other, people were dying of hunger.

The most crucial aspect in food management would, of course, be the proposal for decentralised procurement. Several States have expressed reservation on this. But Mr. Shanta Kumar said if implemented fully, the move would reduce the Food Corporation of India's economic cost of carrying foodgrains. The States would get the differential of the support price and the issue price of foodgrains procured for the PDS and the excess grain would be lifted by the FCI for the central pool.

The meeting was earlier scheduled for April 23 but was postponed due to Assembly elections in five States.