No cheap foodgrains for Bengal’s non-poor

By Faraz Ahmad, IANS

New Delhi : The central government has said it cannot meet West Bengal’s demand to provide cheap foodgrains to above poverty line (APL) people in the state which is witnessing riots over the shortage of subsidised wheat and rice.

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Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has said in a letter to Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, “It is not possible to increase the allocation of rice and wheat to the state of West Bengal for the APL category of households.”

“The procurement of both rice and wheat during the current year has been lower than the estimated level. Of rice it has been lower by 2.6 million tonnes and of wheat by 4.0 million tonnes.”

The state, which is ruled by the Left Front, is faced with riots and raiding and looting of ration shops – subsidised public distribution system outlets – in several parts, particularly Bankura district. The state’s opposition Congress party and the Trinamool Congress have blamed corruption and mismanagement by the Communists for the chaos.

Dasmunsi, who also heads the parliamentary affairs ministry, represents the Raigunj Lok Sabha constituency of West Bengal. He had written to Pawar, enquiring about the cause of shortage of foodgrains and the resultant food riots in the state.

Pawar admitted in this letter, “The allocation to the state of West Bengal during the current year is obviously much lower than the allocations made during earlier years.”

Giving reasons for not supplying adequate quantities of wheat and rice to the state for APL ration-card holders, he said, “Since the off-take of rice and wheat under this (APL) category was very low in previous years in most states, including West Bengal, this allocation has been rationalised for wheat from June 2006 and for rice from April 2007.”

Simultaneously, Pawar blamed the West Bengal government for the non-availability of foodgrains at rations shops in the state.

He claimed that the central government has been promptly meeting the foodgrain demands of the state and the responsibility for non-availability of wheat or rice at the fair price shops (FPS) in the state lay squarely with the state government.

Pawar wrote, “To assist the state government of West Bengal in flood relief measures, the Department of Food and Public Distribution has already allocated 10,333 tonnes of rice and 600 tonnes of wheat to the state government as per the applicable norms for release of foodgrains as a part of flood relief measures.”

Pawar alleged that “the shortcomings in the functioning of the TPDS (targeted public distribution system) in West Bengal mentioned by you in your letter fall within the responsibility of the state government”.

He said the “report received from the state government dated 9.10.2007 has also mentioned a number of shortcomings in the functioning of TPDS, as revealed by an inquiry conducted by the same in Bankura district.”

Privately the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre is complaining that the procurement of rice and wheat in non-UPA states is very low and unsatisfactory.

For instance, the agriculture minister is reported to have told his cabinet colleagues during an informal discussion on the food situation that whereas Uttar Pradesh has been the number one wheat grower in the country for some time, even beating Punjab, procurement from the state is negligible and Gujarat, which is sixth in the list of wheat growers, contributed no wheat at all to the national granary in the last procurement season.

“They contribute nothing or very little during procurement,” said a central minister about non-UPA states, not mentioning the Left Front governments by name, “But when it comes to making demands they are the first in the queue.”