NEW DELHI: With millions on the brink of starvation due to the lockdown imposed, the Central Government on Monday came with a controversial decision to convert “surplus rice” available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) into ethanol for use in making alcohol-based hand-sanitizers. The decision was taken during a National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC) meeting headed by Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

“A meeting of NBCC was held today under the Chairmanship of the Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas, Shri Dharmendra Pradhan, wherein it was approved that the surplus rice available with Food Corporation of India (FCI) may be converted to ethanol for utilization in making alcohol-based hand-sanitizers and in blending for Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) programme,” the government said in a press release.

It also stated that the move has been taken under the National Policy of Biofuels, 2018, which says: “During an agriculture crop year when there is projected oversupply of food grains as anticipated by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, the policy will allow conversion of these surplus quantities of food grains to ethanol, based on the approval of National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC).

On March 1, stocks of wheat and rice with the FCI stood at around 77.6 million tonnes (mt). This was over three-and-a-half times the minimum operational buffer-cum-strategic stock of 21.04 mt required to be maintained for April 1.

Over the last weeks, there have been various reports of cases that many of India’s poorest were going hungry because of the nationwide lockdown, even though the godowns of the Food Corporation of India have been full. 

As the lockdown started, the government promised to feed around 800 million poor people across the country for the next three months. Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman said 5 kg of wheat or rice will be given to each person free of cost, with a kilogram of pulses for every low-income family, through the public distribution system. “No one will go hungry,” the minister had announced.

But free grain under the Public Distribution System is accessible only to the people who have ration cards. For most of the migrants, this is beyond reach as they have not carried ration cards to their places of work.

There are also others who do not even own a ration card. Estimating their number to be around 5 million, experts have suggested that food under PDS be distributed to anyone who shows up. “Around 4 to 5 million people are out of the Public Distribution System as of today,” noted economist Jean Dreze estimated.

With this decision, the controversy surrounding the food availability has restarted and it makes it important to take a decision on humanitarian basis first fulfilling the basic needs of the common man, specially the poor.