Food & Consumer Affairs Ministry completes herculean tasks in COVID times

By: |
December 29, 2020 6:18 PM

The department also regulated the prices of alcohol used in manufacturing of hand sanitisers and kept ceiling prices for masks (2 and 3 ply), melt blown non-woven fabric and hand sanitisers.

It goes to the credit of the ministry and capability of state-owned Food Corporation of India (FCI) that no part of the country witnessed any shortage of food grains amid the pandemic. It goes to the credit of the ministry and capability of state-owned Food Corporation of India (FCI) that no part of the country witnessed any shortage of food grains amid the pandemic.

It was a herculean task to provide free food grains to over 80 crore poor people, and the Food, Public Distribution and Consumer Affairs Ministry successfully implemented the task for eight months in a row as a COVID relief measure during the tumultuous 2020.

It goes to the credit of the ministry and capability of state-owned Food Corporation of India (FCI) that no part of the country witnessed any shortage of food grains amid the pandemic. Literally, there was no shortage of essential items like fruit, vegetables and milk. However, there was a short period when the onion prices skyrocketed.

Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), the ministry provided almost 32 million tonnes of free food grains during April-November period. This was in addition to its routine distribution of highly subsidised food grains under the National Food Security Act.

The ministry’s consumer affairs department too played its role efficiently by taking speedy measures on the regulatory front to ensure adequate availability of masks and hand sanitisers at reasonable prices as the pandemic began to spread in early March.

The nationwide lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus infections also took a toll on employment and the labour segment was the most impacted as factories and construction work came to a stand still. There were reports of huge job losses.

In this backdrop, the government decided to supply additional 5 kg free grains per person and 1 kg pulses per household to over 80 crore poor ration cardholders for April-November period under the PMGKAY.

The ministry rolled out the new scheme from April.

By any standards, this was a mammoth task and the ministry managed to do it without major glitches, except that it could only reach out with free ration, during May-August, to only about 3 crore migrant labourers. This was much less than the target of 8 crore.

“It was an unprecedented year full of crisis created by COVID-19. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we successfully managed grain procurement from farmers to distribution of supplies to the poor via ration shops,” Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey said told PTI.

He too agreed it was a “gigantic task” as double the foodgrain supplies were distributed to the poor between April and November through ration shops under the food law as well as the PMGKAY.

More than 13,000 rakes and over 4.5 lakh trucks were moved during the pandemic carrying extra ration by following all COVID-19 protocols, Pandey added.

Stating that there was neither any shortage of grains nor any price rise for wheat and rice, the secretary said, “foodgrains reached everyone, even in remote areas. Wheat and rice inflation remained under check because of this availability. This was an extra-ordinary achievement.”

When the pandemic unfolded, the rabi crops like wheat were ready for harvest. To ensure farmers do not face any problem in selling their produce in mandis, the government exempted farm activities from lockdown norms and ramped up procurement centres to allow trading while following social distancing norms.

“We procured record 39 million tonnes of wheat in the rabi season notwithstanding the pandemic. The paddy procurement has already increased by 20 per cent to 45 milion tonnes so far in the ongoing kharif season,” Pandey said.

To ensure mills clear dues to sugarcane farmers on time, the government also announced export subsidy of Rs 3,500 crore at the fag end of the year, he added.

Besides 32 million tonnes of wheat and rice, the government distributed 8 lakh tonnes of foodgrains and 1.66 lakh tonnes of pulses to migrant labours.

“It was a mammoth operation, pulses had to be moved from processing mills to far away corners of the country. We used all modes of transportation, including airways to ensure poor gets some protein during the pandemic,” Nidhi Khare, Additional Secretary in the Consumer Affairs Department, said.

Khare, also a COVID-19 survivor, said that rising to the challenge was something the department had never done before and had no idea of forward and backward linkages of whole logistics for pulses distribution.

“It was very satisfying that we rose to this kind of a challenge. We have the satisfaction of providing basic food to the poor and there was no food riots, or price rise in essential foods,” she noted.

When the pandemic started, masks — 2 and 3 ply surgical masks and N95 masks — and hand sanitisers were not available in large quantities in the country. However, on March 13, the department brought these items under the Essential Commodities Act till June to ensure their availability at reasonable rates.

The department also regulated the prices of alcohol used in manufacturing of hand sanitisers and kept ceiling prices for masks (2 and 3 ply), melt blown non-woven fabric and hand sanitisers.

“From there on, we ramped up production, trying to find out which factories are working during the lockdown. Today, we have created a surplus and are exporting to those countries like Bhutan…,” she said.

In the middle of the pandemic, the department took various other steps, including notification of the Consumer Protection Act and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act under which food stuffs were deregulated.

The department continued with building of buffer stock up to 20 lakh tonnes of pulses and 1 lakh tonnes of onions under the Price Stabilisation Fund (PSF). It continued with distribution of buffer stock of pulses through ration shops, mid-day meal scheme and Integrated Child Development Scheme.

Supply of onions from the buffer stock was undertaken through agencies like Safal, Kendriya Bhandar and State agencies to cool down prices.

Amid the pandemic, there were numerous stories about people and sectors but the ministry’s successful efforts are yet to hog the limelight.

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