News Excerpt
Recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has given in-principal approval for making alcohol-based hand sanitisers from the FCI's surplus rice stock. The decision was taken at a meeting of National Biofuel Coordination Committee.

•    The National Policy on Biofuels has a target of 20 % blending of ethanol in petrol and 5 % blending of biodiesel in diesel by 2030.
•    National Policy on Biofuels, 2018 envisions that during an agriculture crop year if it is expected to be an excess supply of food grains, the policy will allow conversion of surplus quantities of food grains to ethanol, based on the approval of NBCC.
•    NBCC is given task of providing overall coordination among FCI to oil marketing companies, taking decision on matters specified in the policy for the committee, effective end to end implementation and monitoring of biofuel program in the country.
•    Food Corporation of India (FCI) has aimed to maintain sufficient buffer stock in the country and to assure price stabilisation. FCI purchases food grains mainly from surplus states and supplies them to deficit states.

Issues Involved
    Amid COVID pandemic, people are losing livelihood and jobs especially the migrant labour and daily wage earners including women. Hunger issue is likely to be looming in India. Rice is staple food of 1.2 billion people.
    Food security for vulnerable people can be assured by way of Universalization of Public Distribution System (PDS). Instead of assurance of the food security, the Government has taken unethical decision of diverting the excess rice to make sanitizers.
    Ethanol can be produced from other ingredients such as B and C heavy molasses, sugar, sugar syrup, and sugarcane juice. Therefore, choosing rice for ethanol production would not be a prudent move.

    Negative Implications of the Decision
o    Food Inflation: Making sanitizers from Rice would squeeze its stock, and probably the price of rice may increase.For instance, USA had used corn to produce bio-fuel, and it resulted into the significant hike in the price of corn.
o    Hunger & Access to food: Amid COVID-19 the rampant poverty, hunger, and malnutrition would escalate further. Unemployment and an increase in food inflation due to supply bottlenecks would affect the access to food. It is imperative that food security and food price stability should be given the highest priority.
o    Stock Shortfall: Rice is a kharif crop, heavily dependent on monsoon. The erratic behavior of monsoon affects Rice Yield. Circumstances created by COVID-19 also limit the hope for production of Rice. Agriculture related livelihood opportunities also seem to be compromised. Using rice for making sanitiser would empty the buffer stock, and rice yield is unpredictable at this course of time. This may create shortfall in buffer stock which can cause threat to food security.
    However, Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), the government is supplying 5 kg of foodgrains per month to over 80 crore people at a highly subsidised price of Rs 2-3 per kg. The Centre has decided to distribute 5 kg of foodgrains per person free of cost for the next three months to provide relief to poor people during the ongoing lockdown period. Though it is a good move by center but it may not be sustainable as it would be delivered through existing PDS system with its own inefficiencies.
    Importance of this decision: To minimize the spread of COVID-19, sanitizers for hospitals, medical staff and frontline Corona Warriors are required. When there is a nationwide shortage of hand sanitizers, adopting an alternative measure should be welcomed. The sanitizers would be given to hospitals and COVID warriors free of cost to secure their life and health.
    India has adequate stock of food grain. Even in case of stock shortfall it can be compensated by way of Import. However, lives of people are precious. This move is a sign that State is discharging its duty to citizens in best possible way.

In spite of all its faults, thanks to India’s public procurement system, India can afford to divert some rice from FCI’s store to sanitizer making factories. However, government and civil society must keep in mind that food security is equally important in this fight against corona virus. Starvation is known to compromise immunity to kinds of diseases. Efficient distribution of food through PDS will go a long way in addressing the immediate concerns.

COVID-19, Ethanol Blending Programme, FCI & Buffer Stock