Calcutta, Sept. 20: The botanical sisters of Indian politics are about to strike a new alliance but Manmohan Singh need not worry, not yet.
The states ruled by Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa have signed a deal under which Bengal will supply rice to Tamil Nadu and help fight a shortage of the key ingredient that goes into the making of idli and dosa.
“We have got an order to supply 1,000 tonnes rice to Tamil Nadu. Talks are on for a repeat order for another 900 tonnes. This is the first time we are going to export rice to Tamil Nadu,” said Bengal food commissioner P.S. Kathiresan, adding the government is also exploring sales potential in Kerala.
Mamata, whose party sports the two-flower-and-blade-of-grass symbol, and Jayalalithaa, whose AIADMK goes by two leaves, had been part of the NDA but they were not known for any joint political venture.
Before finalising the purchase, the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation sent a deputy general manager to Calcutta to test the Bengal variety for quality and taste.
“Other than lab experiments, we also cooked the rice and tasted it and found it to be very close to Ponni (the variety cultivated in the Cauvery delta),” an official said in Tamil Nadu. Bengal officials confirmed idli was on the taste-test menu.
The pot gets to boil a bit here - a senior Bengal official said chief minister Jayalalithaa herself sampled idlis made from the eastern rice after officials sent in a favourable report and she gave the nod. But officials in Tamil Nadu said they were aware of only the general manager, not the chief minister, tasting the rice.
Although Tamil Nadu is self-reliant in rice, poor rainfall has pushed up the price of popular varieties in the open market in the range of Rs 8 and Rs 10 a kg. Sources in the Tamil Nadu government said the kuravai (short term in Tamil) production from the delta region had fallen to less than 80,000 tonnes this year from the usual volume of 1.5 lakh tonnes.
"Tamil Nadu is a rice-consuming state and the price of rice is a sensitive issue there. We have been told that they are trying to contain the price rise through imports from other states," said a Bengal government official.
Records available with the state Food and Civil Supplies department reveal that Bengal is a rice-surplus state as the average production of 150 lakh tonnes of rice in the last three years has been more than the average demand of around 142 lakh tonnes a year.
Till now, the Bengal government had never explored the opportunity of exporting rice to other states and excess supply had often resulted in lower price realisation for farmers, said an agriculture department official.
"The average price that we are getting for the first consignment is Rs 28 a kg, which is nearly Rs 3 more than what the farmers get here. Now that a rice-consuming state has decided to import rice from us, we hope to tap other markets," said a senior official of the Essential Commodities Supply Corporation (ECSC) in the food and supplies department.
Tamil Nadu is buying rice from Bengal through the ECSC.
According to the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation, out of the 1,000 tonnes, 700 tonnes would be parboiled rice and the remaining 300 tonnes would be raw rice. The transportation of the rice will be handled by the Bengal government, which is expected to earn Rs 31 crore from the deal.
Winning over the Tamil Nadu officials who had come down to Calcutta last week to sample rice varieties was not easy, said officials of the ECSC.
The team of officials from Tamil Nadu - which included food secretary M.P. Nirmala - sampled varieties like IR 36 or Sorna and the super-fine Minikit variety, and held meetings with food and supplies minister Jyotipriyo Mullick and department officials.
"They tested lab samples, cooked rice and idli from the rice when the team came to Calcutta. A few days after their return, we got an intimation from the food secretary that they want to import both the varieties from us, as they are closest to the Ponni variety which is very popular in Tamil Nadu," said a senior ECSC official.
"Kerala has also shown interest in buying rice from Bengal and we are talking to them. They have informed us they will send a delegation to our state very soon,'' Kathiresan said.
That will be a deal even Prakash Karat, who hails from Kerala that shares many a bond with Bengal, should not find difficult to stomach.