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Enabling millions to avert hunger

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Enabling millions to avert hunger. I had written in my last article that as Chief Minister NT Rama Rao inaugurated the two rupees per kg rice...

I had written in my last article that as Chief Minister NT Rama Rao inaugurated the two rupees per kg rice programme at Bhakrapet in Chittoor district on Ugadi day, 14th April 1983 there was a great sense of optimism and achievement all around, and that the CM sent for me on the 17th April 1983 to meet him. Before I recount what transpired in this meeting it is necessary to set forth a few points by way of further background on the formulation of the rice scheme in addition to what I have already said.

While it was commendable the scheme would entitle every individual in a household living below an annual income of Rs 6000 with 5 kg of subsidised rice per month at Rs 2 a kilogram subject to a maximum of 25 kg per household it was equally essential that it was ensured that the balance requirements of that household were accessed by it at a reasonable price in the open market; that for those who were outside the subsidized scheme the availability of rice was fully ensured in the open market and the price line of rice for everyone was held at reasonable levels; and the farmers received a price for their paddy that never went below the minimum support price (MSP) announced by the Government of India. Appropriate policies were developed for all these, the foundation of which was that the movement and sale of levy free rice, that is, rice after the levy had been delivered to the Government by the rice millers, would continue to be regulated and monitored through the Collectors by the Civil Supplies Commissioner. Since the millers’ delivery of a levy of 50 % of their production to the Government entitled them to sell the other 50 % levy free rice anywhere in the manner they wished, such levy free rice nevertheless needed to be regulated in a manner that there was no manipulation of the open market prices by the millers and wholesale dealers including by smuggling or hoarding.
With such large scale procurement planned by the Government, it was essential the open market price of rice and supplies of rice were closely watched. In fact, once the levy procurement went into full swing the millers hit back by putting up the open market price of rice. In a quick response, in early February 1983, a policy was formulated and announced which stipulated that the levy free rice of millers after delivering levy to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) would not be automatically available for exports outside the State of Andhra Pradesh but would be subject to the condition that half of it would first have to be sold within Andhra Pradesh to meet the domestic needs of the state. This included sale to the AP State Civil Supplies Corporation at an agreed price. This was announced by me at Vijayawada to the millers of the delta districts of East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna and Guntur in a meeting specially called for this purpose in the presence of the Collectors of these districts, who would implement these orders. On the 11th of February 1983 the Hindu carried a box news item that the open market rice prices in Andhra Pradesh had crashed in the wake of this meeting and followed it up on the 13th February 1983 with a full analysis of the government strategies governing the rice programme under the heading “Undreamt of, invisible gains from subsidy” by its staff reporter from Vijayawada. A rice budget was also formulated detailing the quantities that would be released monthly into the open market for the entire season by the mills under this policy thus assuring the people of overall availability of rice in the market.
This policy formulated for the Khariff season of 1982-83 and further refined in the Rabi season for that year and the orders issued thereunder were challenged in the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 6 writ petitions W.P. Nos. 5445, 5104, 5958, 6010, 5820 and 5923 of 1983 by as many as 328 rice millers of Andhra Pradesh. The Honourable Justice Jeevan Reddy in a landmark judgment upheld the policy in an order dated the 8th of August 1983 dismissing the writ petitions subject to certain clarifications and directions. In an elaborate order for which the poor in India should ever be grateful, he referred to every detail of the policy including even the monthly rice budget validating the policy evolved for the rice scheme on all major questions of law raised by the opponents of the policy. Those who wish to understand how the provisions of the Essential Commodities Act 1955 and the orders made under it can be used to regulate supplies in pursuance of food security policies should read this judgment for further enlightenment. I had an occasion recently to gratefully remind the great judge when I met him for the first time in my life in 2012, at Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad in a meeting, of his signal contribution to the validity of a pro-poor food security programme that had enabled millions upon millions of people to avert hunger over these several decades in our state.
The reason I am narrating these events is to give the readers an idea of the battles that had to be fought to save this rice programme as abackground so they can appreciate the creation of many man-made obstacles to this effort by the protagonists themselves. That may sound strange but that is how politics are played.
As soon as we met at his residence on the evening of the 17th April 1983, three days after the two rupees rice scheme had been launched, the Chief Minister, who had just returned after his Chittoor tour, told me that he did not like my making policy in regard to the rice scheme as that was his prerogative and my job was only to implement his policies. I pointed out to him all government policies were his ultimately but somebody had to do all the work which leads to a policy and that somebody happened to be me as far this particular scheme was concerned. However, the Chief Minister repeated what he had said minutes earlier. I sensed instantly that somebody was driving a wedge between him and me and the CM was lending his ear to them. To say I was shocked would be to grossly understate my anger.
I came home and wrote a note to the CM through the Chief Secretary and the Minster of Civil Supplies Mahendra Nath about the conversation the CM had had with me, pointing out that since there was a trust deficit in regard to me it was but proper that the government should find another Civil Supplies Commissioner. I also met personally Minister Mahendra Nath, a fine gentleman, who had known me over several years to express my feelings and sought immediate relief from my responsibility in the department. As I wanted no delay I circulated this file through the Chief Secretary simultaneously to the CM. Mohan Kanda IAS was joint secretary to the CM those days and S. B. Bannerjee IAS, the CM’s deputy secretary. They were the kind of civil servants, who spoke their mind to the political masters and Mohan Kanda marched into the CM’s chambers with the file in hand. While I do not know what transpired exactly between him and Rama Rao it was obvious that he told the CM bluntly that this was neither in his own interest nor of his favourite scheme. Subject to my memory not deserting me, the Chief Minister asked Mohan Kanda if some “officers thought he (the CM) could be frightened” and Kanda’s frank reply, whatever it was, was suitable enough for the CM to send for me and persuade me to continue as Commissioner of Civil Supplies.
A little later, the Chief Minister made a statement, even as the programme started to settle down with the state government drawing, thanks to the generous understanding shown by the centre, around an unprecedented 80,000 tonnes of rice each month for the rice programme that “the Centre was a Myth”. With the state’s need for rice ever increasing because of the unplanned announcements made by the CM about the beneficiary levels and the scale of entitlement, our dependence on the Centre was actually escalating more than ever. The offtake in the rice scheme was going up with the onset of the lean season and August, 1983 saw an offtake in the PDS of the order of about 2 lakh tonnes. By then our levy procurement through the FCI had gone past a humungous 16. 23 lakh tonnes. The Centre was now getting alarmed by the success of the rice programme. Our need was some 25 lakh tonnes and as we raced ahead toward the target, I had an unwelcome visit by the Managing Director of the FCI, Delhi accompanied by the Zonal Manager of the FCI, Madras.
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