he coronavirus outbreak is accelerating reforms in India’s food-rationing system. At this critical juncture, the public distribution system (PDS) of the state is being managed by Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare Minister Ranendra Pratap Swain. In an exclusive interview with Manish Kumar of Orissa POST (OP), he throws light on challenges posed by the pandemic and measures undertaken by the state govt. Excerpts:
OP: What measures are being undertaken by the Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare department to ensure food security for vulnerable sections during the pandemic?
Keeping in mind the need to provide food grains to those who need it the most, my department provided three months’ ration at one go at the doorstep of beneficiaries. In order to implement it, I fielded a dedicated team both at the department and my residence office which coordinated with officials through technology.
OP: Have you implemented any specific norms to curb the COVID-19 spread during public distribution of foodgrains?
We issued detailed Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) to ensure safety of distributors as well as the beneficiaries. They were instructed to wear masks mandatorily and sanitise not only their hands but also the equipment in use. Most of the field officials used contactless methods to dispense ration. I am happy to inform that none of our COVID warriors contracted the virus during the most crucial, Phase 1 of the lockdown.
OP: The Centre launched PM Garib Kalyan Yojana recently. How much did it benefit Odisha?
Odisha is a pioneer and was the first to get off the blocks. Within a month of the decision, we covered most of the beneficiaries. However, providing pulses was delayed because we could not receive it on time from the central government. We are now working to provide foodgrains and pulses under PMGKY till next November. Besides, distributing Rs 1000 to more than 90 lakhs beneficiaries, as announced by our CM, fell on our shoulder and our field staff did not disappoint. Even though more than 90 lakh people were provided cash benefits, not a single case of misappropriation has come to our notice.
OP: There have been reports of starvation deaths in the state during the pandemic. What is your take on that?
Starvation deaths are a thing of the past. We have added about 10 lakh people under SFSA who could not be covered under NFSA. Moreover, during the pandemic, we have added close to 3.5 lakh people under SFSA. However, we still get requests and complaints from people. These issues are addressed immediately. Besides, we take suo motu action based on media reports and social media complaints and facilitate to provide necessary support.
OP: Can someone without Aadhaar card in Odisha be deprived of PDS?
Such things have not happened in Odisha. Even though there is a Supreme Court ruling that linking of Aadhaar is mandatory for getting benefits under poverty alleviation schemes, we have taken a liberal view during the pandemic. Whenever any issues arise, our field staffs have been directed to undertake a field report and facilitate distribution within 24 hours. For weeding out corruption and duplication, we strongly advocate linking of Aadhaar and PDS services.
OP: How are you ensuring stability in prices of food items?
There are some reports of price hikes in case of certain vegetables. However, there is no such information on foodgrains because the market is well supplied. We have tried to keep the prices of essential vegetables like onion, potato, tomato under check successfully. But now we may face difficulty. As you are aware that the Union government has amended the Essential Commodity Act (ECA) which has kept these items out of the purview of ECA except in exceptional cases. States do not have much power to control the prices using conventional methods. We have to find a way to address the new situation and we will ensure that interests of the consumers are always kept at the top.
OP: As a minister, do you find it difficult to manage the affairs of the department during the ongoing crisis?
I have been using technology including social media for a long time to communicate. I use it to remain connected during the pandemic too. Many close groups have been formed as per the need and necessary instructions are relayed to the stakeholders. My team is working round the clock to ensure seamless service and I don’t find any reason for our work to get hampered.