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Maintaining Food Supply Lines In Corona Times

"The present situation is unprecedented and presents an opportunity to prove that technology has enabled the Government to provide food security to the poor."

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Acting on the advice of medical professionals to check community spread of Coronavirus, the Prime Minister in his speech on 24th March 2020, announced a lock down across India. Trains, buses, trucks, aero planes, taxis, autos and metro networks are not operating and there are curfew-like restrictions across India.

No one has ever experienced anything like this before. While the Government is doing everything possible to check the spread of Coronavirus in the community, it is the responsibility of everyone to follow the advice and minimise interaction with others.

After the speech of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has issued an order under Disaster Management Act, 2005 directing closure of all commercial and private establishments. However, shops dealing with food, groceries, fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, fish and animal fodder have been exempted. Delivery of these items through e-commerce has also been allowed.

Through this order of MHA, industrial establishments have been directed to close operations but units manufacturing essential commodities have been exempted and they can continue their operations.

While some States have issued detailed list of industries exempted from lockdown, there is confusion in other States and several business establishments have been closed by district collectors and police.

Supply chain of food manufacturers, including procurement of raw material, packaging material and ingredients as well as the movement of trucks has been badly hit, which may show up in shortage of food items in the next few days. In several States, the food companies have been forced to seek curfew permits from district collectors or police for permitting movement of raw material or finished products. It is possible that trucks moving food grains for ration shops are also stuck.

This confusion has arisen because ‘essential commodities’ relating to food are not defined clearly.

Under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, there are seven categories of items: (1) Drugs; (2) Fertilizers (3) Foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils; (4) Hank yarn, made from cotton; (5) Petroleum and petroleum products; (6) Raw jute and jute textiles; (7) (i) seeds of food-crops and fruits and vegetables; (ii) seeds of cattle fodder; (iii) cotton seeds and (iv) jute seeds.

There is a broad category of foodstuffs in EC Act, but it does not define the foodstuffs. The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (FSSA) provides a comprehensive definition of food which includes anything consumed by human beings as food, including both primary and processed food, infant food, packaged drinking water and even alcoholic drinks.

In several States like MP, Maharashtra and Delhi, mandi operations have also come to a halt. The supply of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other agricultural produce will be badly hit which will adversely impact the farmers as there will be no buyers and they will be forced to sell cheaply. It will also result in price rise for consumers due to short supply.

Complete lock down of three weeks is too long for food items. It is therefore necessary that the Ministry of Home Affairs issues clear directions to the States that all food items mentioned in the FSSA are exempted from any restrictions on manufacturing and movement.

It seems that in several States including MP, Maharashtra and Delhi, mandis are not functioning and fresh arrivals have stopped.

But the most seriously hit by the lockdown will be the poorer sections of society. While middle class and workers in the organised sector have the assurance of their March salary, those in the un-organised sector as well as agricultural labourers and farmers are very poorly placed to earn their living in a shut down.

While the supply chain of essential food stuff will improve in the next few days, a vast majority of India’s poor will run out of their savings and they will not be able to purchase food items even if they are available in the market. It is

time to put much touted Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) trinity to actual use and transfer money directly to their bank accounts so that they can survive the lock down.

The present situation is unprecedented and presents an opportunity to prove that technology has enabled the Government to provide food security to the poor.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak food supply

Siraj Hussain

The author retired as Union Agriculture Secretary. He is Visiting Senior Fellow, ICRIER

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