India will not hesitate to import food as and when the need arises to deal with this year's drought, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in New Delhi on Friday, adding that stocks of grain with state-run agencies were healthy now.
"We will go for imports. But we do not make announcements of import in a very big way because that has another cascading effect," the minister told a meeting with state agriculture ministers in New Delhi.
"The moment news spreads India is going for heavy dosage of imports, then it will automatically have an impact on market prices being jacked up," Mukherjee told the meeting called to deliberate on the current drought declared in 246 out of India's 626 administrative districts.
"The decision is already there. Whichever commodity is in short supply, to meet the demand and supply mechanism, we shall go for imports," he said, adding that for commodities like edible oils and pulses, imports were on for a long time.
As news of a drought in India spread, sugar prices reached a 28-year high in the international market. India is the world's second largest sugarcane producer after Brazil.
Mukherjee said that thanks to the record production of food grain in India's last agriculture year (July 2008 - June 2009), estimated at 233.87 million tonnes, the country was approaching the drought with adequate buffer stocks.
According to him, as opposed to the normal buffer stock norm of four million tonnes of wheat and 5.2 million tonnes of rice, the country had created additional reserves of three million tonnes of wheat and two million tonnes of rice.
"We need not lose confidence in ourselves," Mukherjee said, adding that the country had both the expertise and capacity to deal with drought and would certainly overcome the situation.
He said all this was because of steps taken by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh since it first assumed office in May 2004 to significantly raise the support prices for grains.
"Take any period or any span of five years and you will never find such -- almost 150 percent -- increase in support price for wheat and paddy. And the country benefited from it."
Earlier, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar told the conference that though farmers were expected to sow their winter crops over a larger area to offset the current losses, the situation remained disturbing.
"The situation is grim. Not just for crop sowing and crop health but also for sustaining animal health, providing drinking water, livelihood and food, particularly for the small and marginal farmers and landless labourers," Pawar said.
Friday's meeting followed another with chief ministers, presided over by the prime minister last weekend, where he urged all state governments to draw up contingency plans to deal with the drought situation without delay.
"The need is for us to act promptly, collectively and effectively. I assure you of our government's full support regarding any additional assistance that may be required in your efforts. In no case should we allow citizens to go hungry," he had said.