Calcutta/New Delhi, Oct. 10: The ration riot in Bengal has been blamed on rising grain prices in the open market that drove above-poverty-line consumers back to the public distribution system, catching unawares the state government which had already scaled back orders.
State officials said an “abnormal” drop in demand – largely because the prices in ration outlets and private shops had evened out over the past few years -- had prompted the government to pick up less rice and wheat from the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
However, with prices rising in the open market (see chart), a bulk of the five crore APL card-holders went back to collecting grain from ration shops, which were not stocked to meet the demand.
“The prices of virtually all common unbranded rice varieties have gone up by Rs 3-4 a kg, while that of branded rice have gone up by Rs 5-6 a kg,” Harsimran Singh, a commodities analyst, said in Delhi.
In September, the state had bought only 32 per cent of the 1.19 lakh tonnes of rice allotted by the Centre, officials in Delhi said.
For Bankura, Birbhum, Burdwan and Murshidabad — which have been the hardest hit by the ration fury in the state — the government limited purchases to 48.6 per cent, 34.6 per cent, 39.4 per cent and 23.8 per cent, respectively.
But it picked up a much larger quantity for select places. Calcutta (North), for instance, got 73.9 per cent. The officials could not explain why more grain was lifted for the city.
“The state government has reduced its off-take of grain from the FCI over the years because of an abnormal drop in APL demand. Very few middle-class consumers would earlier buy from ration shops. But skyrocketing prices forced them to go there. Moreover, the state government’s rice procurement hasn’t been much,” a senior food official said.
The Centre, too, has reduced its grain allocation to Bengal. An official said even if the state had picked up its full quota, it would not have been able to meet the demand.
The official said the Centre’s wheat collection has not been that good and it had to import wheat from Australia about a year ago.
The shortage of wheat through last year has affected the price of rice, which is often used as a substitute for wheat.
State food minister Paresh Adhikary said hoarding was another factor. “It’s true that… we had not anticipated this sudden demand for rice from ration shops. But that could have been compensated had some ration dealers been honest. They hoarded grain, depriving the common people,” he said.
But Adhikary’s Forward Bloc has had a free hand in picking ration dealers – one of the rewards that allies have come to enjoy in the age of coalition politics.