Mrunal Manmay Dash

As the Centre announced distribution of free rice to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) for one year, it effectively slammed the brakes on the Odisha government’s ‘one-rupee rice politics.’

The Odisha government on Tuesday also announced free rice under its own State Food Security Act, which covers only 9 lakh people, which is a negligible proportion of the population of Odisha.

As per reports, last week, the Union cabinet had decided to provide foodgrains under NFSA free-of-cost to the 813 million beneficiaries during 2023. In Odisha, the Centre will distribute 5 kg packets of rice each to 3.26 crore beneficiaries free of cost.

It is pertinent to mention here that the estimated economic cost of procurement by the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which includes expenses such as Minimum Support Price payment to farmers, procurement, acquisition and distribution costs, etc, for rice is Rs 36.7/kg (2022-23).

However, under the food security legislation, the Centre has been distributing 5 kilogram of rice per person per month at highly subsidised rates of Rs 3 to states including Odisha. On top of that, the Odisha government was giving a subsidy of Rs 2, thereby, providing the rice to the beneficiaries at Re 1. The Odisha government was allegedly branding it as its own Re 1 rice scheme & taking undue mileage and unfair advantage during elections. Now that the Centre will distribute rice free of cost, the Odisha govt has no scope to layer nominal subsidy on top of it and take mileage.

Commenting on the matter, senior BJP leader and the Leader of Opposition, Jayanarayan Mishra said, “There have been widespread irregularities in ration card allotments in Odisha. But the Centre will distribute it to eligible beneficiaries only. The separate announcement of free rice by State govt is unnecessary and reeks of vote bank politics.”

However, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) denied the allegations of politics. “We had distributed free rice during Covid too. So the announcement of free rice has been made by CM Naveen Patnaik keeping in view the requirement of the people. This has nothing to do with political mileage. It is rather a service to people,” said Odisha Food Supplies Minister, Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak.

As per the experts, while the free rice arrangement by the Centre has put the Odisha government in a fix, it is unlikely that the Naveen Patnaik-led government will remain silent. If reports are to be believed, the Odisha government exchequer will save around Rs 1200 cr annually on account of the free rice announcement by the Centre. Experts opine that the state govt can use this savings to launch some other welfare schemes.

In fact, the Odisha government has already begun its own free rice scheme which will come into effect from 2023 January till December 2023.

“The Rs 1200 crore which the State government will save after the Centre shouldered all the responsibility of the free rice scheme, will definitely be used for other such schemes in Odisha. It will make the BJD government beneficial on all fronts, including political,” opined a food security activist, Rajkishore Mishra.

Whoever provides free rice, it is ultimately the people who will get the benefits given the scheme reach the eligible beneficiaries. But with the 2024 elections approaching, the dynamics of free rice-politics between the Centre and State has surely changed.

(Reported by Harihar Chand, OTV))