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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Govt gives free phones to poor instead of grain

People in Phagi village in Rajasthan haven’t been lucky to get free foodgrain from the government. But these below the poverty line (BPL) card holders have been magnanimously issued BSNL mobile connections with a free connection as part of a corporate social responsibility initiative.

One among the 1,000-odd beneficiaries is Gyarasi Devi who has no idea what to do with the gift. “We could have done with some grain, or a job. What will we do with these mobiles,” she asked. Other recipients say it is more of a headache than a gift. “Mobiles will actually add to our expenses. The foodgrain in the godowns is rotting. Why can’t the government distribute foodgrain,” Govind said.

Although Minister of State for Communication and Information Technology Sachin Pilot skipped the function, he defended the decision to supply mobile phones instead of foodgrain. “It is a good start made by the BSNL to make people below the poverty line feel like they too can be part of the telecom revolution. My best wishes are with them,” the minister said.

Also conspicuous by his absence was Rajasthan Civil Supplies Minister Babulal Nagar. Babulal was recently embroiled in a controversy after television news showed how Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns were being used to stack liquor while foodgrain rotted outside.

The FCI has played a catalytic role in the distribution of grain at subsidised rates to India’s poor, partly ensuring smooth supply of grain in the open market by drawing on its stocks during high inflation, shortages and price volatility. It has also played a role in preventing grain prices from falling below the government-set minimum support price by buying grain from farmers, subject to quality specifications.

Earlier in the week, the food ministry told the Supreme Court that its suggestion on limiting food procurement to available storage facilities, if put into action, would hit the poor farmer and “drastically impact the food security of the nation”.

In a 19-page affidavit, C Vishwanath, joint secretary in the ministry, said: “If the Food Corporation of India and state government agencies that do the work of procurement were to limit procurement only to the extent of their storage capacities, it would mean that in years of peak procurement, when markets are not very favourable, many farmers may not be able to sell their produce… and… would be left… at the mercy of traders who may not pay adequate prices.”

The government said this would force it to go back on its assurance to farmers that “whatever quantity of foodgrain they wished to sell to the government at minimum support prices would be purchased by the FCI and state agencies,” provided quality specifications were met.

“Absence of adequate returns or an assured guarantee from the government procurement agencies for purchase of foodgrain would dis-incentivise farmers from sowing these crops in future.” The affidavit went on to explain how the court’s suggestion would cause a “substantial shift to other non-food crops” in agriculture. “This would then drastically impact the food security of the nation,” the government said.

It would be best to augment “production and procurement” rather than limit food purchase to storage space, the government added.

Procurement went up from 36.2 million tonnes in 2006-07 to 53.77 million tonnes as on September 4, 2010, the affidavit stated.

Meanwhile, the government is thinking about splitting the 46-year-old FCI into three entities to divide the responsibilities of procurement, storage and distribution, said a senior government official.

The Union government invited wide criticism when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rejected the Supreme Court’s suggestion to distribute rotting foodgrain to the poor.

The apex court had observed: “It is time we develop a culture of zero-tolerance towards corruption to ensure two square meals for the hungry and the poor. What will be the choice of the government -- allow foodgrain to rot, or give it free to the poor and hungry. The choice is obvious.”

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