Going against the grain

A part of the problem of plenty is because the coalitions ruling the Centre have been bulldozed by allies into relaxing quality norms and raising procurement prices.

A PART of the problem of plenty is because the coalitions ruling the Centre have allowed themselves to be bulldozed by political allies into relaxing the quality norms for PDS grain and raising the minimum support price of wheat and rice to levels that have unbalanced the market. At least two alliance partners, the Akali Dal and the Telugu Desam, have, at different times, threatened to withdraw support to the BJP-lead National Democratic Alliance if their demands were not met.

In 1997-98, the then Prime Minister, Mr. I. K. Gujral, conceded the demand of the Akali Dal Government in Punjab to relax the quality norms for rice. Punjab's request was promptly followed by Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Padesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. That year, 92.89 lakh tonnes - about 65 per cent of the total - of sub-standard rice was procured.

In 1998-99, with their own party man, Mr. S. S. Barnala, in the saddle as Union Food Minister, the Akalis put pressure again for procurement of relaxed-specification rice (URS). The Centre accepted 50.42 lakh tonnes of URS rice that year that no State wanted to lift from the FCI. Eventually, the Centre put a freeze on this rice being sold to consumers under the PDS. It was auctioned and may have found its way back into the market mixed with good quality rice.

In 2000-01 (this kharif marketing season), rain, the usual culprit, was minimal having no impact on harvested crop. But Punjab wanted the Centre to relax quality norms for paddy to be procured by millers for the central pool. First, the State got the procurement season advanced by two weeks reportedly in view of a Lok Sabha byelection. The State agencies could not get their contract with millers in place at the right time resulting in the early paddy lying around in mandis. The Akali Dal again got into action and secured relaxation on paddy colour with the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee's intervention. Haryana and Uttar Pradesh followed suit and 105 lakh tonnes of discoloured paddy was procured by the FCI for the PDS.

And when the rice was to be milled, the Punjab Chief Minister, Mr. Parkash Singh Badal, was again in New Delhi seeking concessions on quality. When the Union Food Minister, Mr. Shanta Kumar, stayed firm, Mr. Badal approached the Finance Minister, Mr. Yashwant Sinha. He cited the agitations by farmers in Punjab and said the State would return to terrorism if the farmers' cause was not protected. The cause was actually the rice millers'. The Centre lowered the out-turn ratio from 67 to 64 per cent. And the rice millers made a killing of about Rs. 230 crores on this decision alone.

The TDP Government in Andhra Pradesh also came forward seeking concession on the quantity of admixture that is allowed in Grade A paddy. Later the TDP wanted the local varieties, Swaran Masuri and MTU1001, purchased at the higher Grade A rate of procurement. After much demurring, the Centre conceded the demand.

- G.P.