Covid-19: Govt says food stocks sufficient, as coronavirus-scared consumers stockpile essentials
India has nearly 10 times the emergency reserve needed for this time of the year and the country’s over 500,000 fair price shops are likely to be pressed into action to deal with mass distribution in case of any emergency.Updated: Mar 19, 2020 07:42 IST
Consumers in many urban centres are rushing to stockpile food commodities and essentials due to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to companies monitoring sales, but the Union government has assured that the country has sufficient foodgrain stocks in federal and state-held reserves, several times the required emergency buffer, to tide over any crisis.
India has nearly 10 times the emergency reserve needed for this time of the year and the country’s over 500,000 fair price shops are likely to be pressed into action to deal with mass distribution in case of any emergency, an official of the consumer affairs ministry said, requesting anonymity.
However, some experts said the government could do little to intervene in any large-scale shortage of manufactured essential items and the government’s procurement is mainly agricultural, such as wheat, rice and limited quantities of sugar and pulses.
An inter-ministerial group is in talks with major industries to ensure steady supplies of essential items, as families fearing more restrictions on movement in the wake of the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak are stocking up on household items, the official said.
As of February 1, the Food Corporation of India had 30 million tonnes of wheat, while norms require 3 million as strategic reserve. On the other hand, rice stocks currently amount to about 27 million tonnes, while the government’s norms require a strategic stock of 2 million tonne.
“If there is a need, the government can and will resort to open market sale from the Centre’s stock,” the official said. This means if there is any shortage of foodgrains in private markets, the government will release from its share held in reserves for a certain price.
The Centre, through the Food Corporation of India, maintains two types of stocks. While operational stocks are meant to meet monthly distribution requirements under the Food Security Act to provide subsidised grains, the food security stocks are meant to tide over any emergency.
“Normally, during shortage, the Centre will offer first to state governments. During abnormal times, it can offer grains to players such as say Big Bazaar. But first and foremost, the government must plan for any crisis based on market intelligence,” said Siraj Hussain, former agriculture secretary.
Fast-moving consumer good (FMCG) companies said they had seen an upswing in demand from urban centres, such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. “We are watching the trends. People feel the outbreak could get worse. We expect more buying of items such as oil, sugar, pasta, wheat, rice and flour, whose sales have gone up,” said Ajay Motwani, head of consumer marketing at Adani Wilmar.
The food and consumer affairs ministry has put masks and hand sanitizers under the Essential Commodities Act up to June 30, 2020, to ensure availability and correct price gouging of these items. Under the Act, after discussions with the manufacturers, states can ask manufacturers to enhance their production of masks and sanitisers.
“The truth is nothing much often comes out of such steps of declaring items as essential commodities. The government should be in constant discussion with manufacturers and plan accordingly,” Hussain said.