The Supreme Court’s instruction to the government to distribute food grain rotting in FCI (Food Corporation of India) store houses among the starving millions was an “order”, not a “suggestion”, the court made it clear on Tuesday.
It could be a major embarrassment for food and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who had made public his opinion on the court’s order earlier stating the “suggestion” was “not possible” to implement. Besides, the court’s pronouncement has provided Pawar’s political opponents an opportunity to push him to a corner.
“Counsel the minister (Pawar) to refrain from making such statements. It is (the order on food grain) our order, not a suggestion,” a bench of justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma told additional solicitor-general Mohan Parasaran.
The judges also referred to Pawar’s statement predicting a rise in sugar prices. “Such statements would encourage hoarding of sugar,” it said. The bench was hearing a PIL filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) on the issue.
Responding to the court’s order, Pawar told the Lok Sabha that the government would honour the decision of the Supreme Court on free distribution of food grains to the poor. The Congress, however, is not buying this. The party, which has been trying to distance itself from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and its chief over the food grain issue, has sought a change in the agriculture ministry.
A senior Congress minister said, “We definitely expected a lot from Pawar as minister of agriculture and food and civil supplies.”
The party is upset with the NCP chief’s comment last week that it was strange that he had to take the flak for the price rise instead of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Only a week ago, the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) had dispatched a letter to the prime minister’s office, stating the PM was being misled by Pawar on the food grain situation.
Chief minister Ashok Chavan had also backed the letter.
MPCC spokesperson Kanhaiyalal Gidwani said, “If the Supreme Court has issued directives on rotting food grain then it is a serious matter. The government should look into the matter.”
He added: “We have been asking the Centre to adapt new policy. If 90% of food grain remains unlifted, it should find out the reasons and take corrective measures.”
On the defensive, the NCP said ensuring distribution of food grain rotting in godowns to the poor was a collective responsibility at the central level. Pawar alone cannot be held responsible for it.
NCP’s general secretary Gurnath Kulkarni said, “Why should Pawar be equated with apex court’s verdict? It is the collective responsibility of the Centre and not of the agriculture minister alone.”
Pawar himself has argued that “surplus food production has led to shortage of godowns. Food grain was damaged in the rains in some states as they stored it in the open.”
The opposition parties have decided to up the ante over the issue. The BJP has decided to step up its campaign across states to expose ‘the rotten food grains scam’. BJP president Nitin Gadkari said, “Allowing food grain worth Rs58,000 crore to rot in godowns when several lakhs of people are reeling in hunger is a criminal.”