The poor are facing the brunt of the sufferings caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst this, the step of converting surplus rice into ethanol for sanitizer industry and petrol blending has brought lots of criticism on the government and its policy formulation amid COVID 19 pandemic. Several NGOs and civil societies have stated that India is nearing a situation of starvation.
A developing economy, already facing a slowdown, decade-high unemployment rate, and now a prediction of a situation of starvation has seen the situation nearing a disaster with the pandemic. But is it really possible that an agrarian nation that produces record food grains every year may go through starvation conditions? Let’s analyze the facts before we come to a conclusion.
What do pressure groups, NGOs, social scientists have to say on the government’s decision to use surplus rice for alcohol?
Firstly, the Global Hunger Index scores are calculated on four indicators – Undernourishment, Child Wasting, the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (that is, who have low weight with respect to their height, reflecting acute under-nutrition); Child Stunting, children under the age of five who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic under-nutrition; and Child Mortality, the mortality rate of children under the age of five.
The share of children in India rose from 16.5% in the 2008-2012 period to 20.8% in 2014-2018, the highest in the world, according to the report. The child stunting rate that is 37.9% is also categorized as very high, as per the report. These contribute to the hidden form of hunger, so we can say that India lagged behind largely because of hidden hunger for which the government has already started producing and distributing fortified food grains, and other nutrients through the PDS.
In case of a current situation like this which is largely temporary, if we fight altogether, the most important thing is providing food to eat, irrespective of nutrition value to avoid any starvation-like situation in the near future. For this, the government has already announced a subsidized food supply to 80 crore people. Different state governments have already issued temporary ration cards too.
Dipa Sinha, Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University, also confirmed that around 65 million tonnes of grain would be needed to universalize PDS for six months assuming that the grain is provided to 80% of the population. India has a sufficient amount of grains. In addition to this, the metrological department has predicted a normal monsoon season, the government has already opened the agriculture sector for production. Rabi crops had been harvested, and Kharif crops are being sown. 2000 rupees have been deposited through DBT under PMKISAN Yojana, which means India is all set to produce record food grain in the next six months, which could come up to 300 million tonnes.
Secondly, let’s discuss the importance of sanitizers. As per WHO guidelines, frequent washing of hands with soap and using 70% alcohol-based sanitizer during non-availability of water is essential to keep the virus at bay. Alcohol-based sanitizer is too costly in the market and out of reach of poor or low-income group people, because of higher prices of alcohol. The government has already regulated the price of sanitizer but when the lockdown ends, the need and frequency of sanitizer use will increase manyfold, as the threat of getting infected won’t end soon. It will be the responsibility of the government to provide sanitizer at a cheap rate to lower-income groups.
When sanitizers become an essential part of one’s life, most of the alcohol can be diverted towards this industry instead of distilleries for wine, etc. The required amount of revenue could be generated through the sanitizer industry, and it will be easy for states to force a complete ban on alcoholic drinks. This is the time when a new sanitizer industry needs a major push.
Thirdly, the industry could help the domestic economy to revive in the future especially when its predicted growth rate is below 2%. Moreover, we must not forget that India is a mixed economy where a major role is played by the market. Subsidizing all the produced grains could result in a crash of the local market. Producing ethanol from surplus and blending it with petrol as per policy could result in reduced import bills in such a situation of crisis. India is self-sustained in the agriculture industry, and the share of agricultural export in total exports is approximately 12%. This may go down because of the global recession, so producing ethanol for sanitizer and petrol industries from surplus food grains is never a bad idea. In all the cases we are in a win-win situation.
Largely this is a survival cum revival plan, where the only important thing that matters is implementation. Civil societies and pressure groups must come forward and keep a check on the distribution system. What we have should be used judiciously. We have more than what is required. We only need to introduce a proper distribution system and suitable beneficiaries. Recognizing the beneficiary is another hard task on which government must work.
Local authorities and local governments should be made accountable for equal distribution and supply. The government should plan to distribute sanitizers too, through PDS to the poor and low-income groups, for their safety as they are most vulnerable to the disease. The period after lockdown is the most crucial, we all must stand strong with the government to protect each and every fellow Indian from the pandemic.