The Right to Food Campaign on Tuesday issued a statement against the Centre’s decision to use surplus rice stocks to make ethanol for hand sanitisers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. A doctors’ collective, Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, also made a similar demand, calling the decision ridiculous and “totally inhuman and unscientific”.

At a meeting of the National Biofuel Coordination Committee on Monday, the government had approved a policy that will allow surplus rice available with the Food Corporation of India to be converted into ethanol to manufacture alcohol-based hand sanitisers.

“We are shocked and dismayed to learn that the central government has decided to convert the FCI’s rice stocks into ethanol to make hand sanitisers while there is no response to the multiple demands by civil society and academicians for universalising the PDS [Public Distribution System] so that no person goes hungry,” the Right to Food activists said.

They said the Centre must uphold Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life to every person in India. “Rather than putting in place systems for decentralised procurement for all crops and distribution of food to all, it is appalling that the government is thinking of using it for the production of sanitisers,” the activists said. “It is indeed important that there are adequate arrangements for handwashing made available for all. For this, we demand that the government ensures adequate availability of water supply and distributes soaps through the PDS.”

The countrywide lockdown, which was imposed on March 25 and was supposed to end on April 14, has been extended till May 3.

The activists said the lockdown led to “mass distress” as millions of people have lost their livelihood and migrant workers have been stranded without food and shelter in different parts of the country. “The central government took three days to make the announcement that additional food grains would be distributed under the PDS – even then this was only for those who already have ration cards,” the statement said. “Over the last three weeks there have been reports of mass hunger and near starvation from across the country. However, the additional grain has still not reached people in many parts.”

They urged the Centre to make provision of rations universal as about 80 crore people do not have ration cards to avail the benefits of the relief measures. “Many of those excluded belong to the most marginalised groups including migrants, homeless persons, Dalits, Adivasis, single women and the elderly,” the statement added. “Even within households, not all members are included in the ration card. The current coverage is about 60% of the population with over 40% people remaining outside the PDS net.”

The activists said sufficient food grains were available to mitigate the crisis. “The unmilled paddy there are over 75 million tonnes of food grains in the FCI godowns and another 35-40 million tonnes are expected to be procured over the next few months from the Rabi harvest,” the statement said, adding that Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Minister Ram Vilas Paswan had also admitted that there was no food shortage in the country amid the lockdown.

At this time of distress, rather than passing the blame or even focusing on identifying the poor or needy, the central government must announce that every person who approaches them shall be given free rations which include at least 10 kg of foodgrain, 1.5 kg of pulses and 800 gm of edible oil per person,” the statement added. “State governments that start such a provision must be allowed to lift grains from the FCI for free.”

Meanwhile, the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development said that food is the basic necessity to build immunity to fight any disease, including Covid-19. They said the rice and wheat in the Food Corporation of India godowns “keep on rotting because the governments do not use them properly”.

“Now the new stock of rabi crop is coming,” the group said. “The old stock should be open for universal public distribution so as to prevent hunger. Food stock should be given without any condition of ration or Aadhar card as with this condition many people will be left out.”

On April 10, the Right to Food Network had said that the relief measures announced by the government last month were “hugely inadequate” in responding to the crisis. They urged the Narendra Modi government to universalise the Public Distribution System to avoid hunger and starvation amid the coronavirus-induced lockdown of the country.

The activists warned that the potential repercussions of food shortage is not just limited to immediate starvation deaths and hunger problems, but can also have long-term effects like increased incidence of tuberculosis and diseases caused by malnutrition, especially in children and women. “Besides, the lockdown has led to wide disruptions of food supply chains, loss of employment and food inflation,” they said. “With that in mind, the support for food security must continue for the next one year, at the very least.”

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