The West Bengal Chief Minister’s welter of measures to keep the supply chain of essential commodities up and running reaffirms the shortage that some markets in Kolkata and the districts have been facing over the past week, covering the janata curfew on 22 March and the nationwide lockdown.
As reported in this newspaper, the state faces the risk of running out of supplies in view of the ever so ballooning demand coupled with dwindling stocks, if the jostling crowds at wholesale and retail stores are any indication. The demand for food and provisions needs to be addressed no less urgently than the pandemic.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the food crisis has compounded the dreadful affliction. The measures, announced by Mamata Banerjee last Friday, are primarily intended to remove the bottlenecks in the handling and transportation of essential commodities from the Posta wholesale market. Admittedly, she has announced considerably subsidised rations, but the public distribution chain has always been plagued by fiddles in the supply lines.
It is imperative, therefore, to ensure that subsidised food supplies, earmarked for the PDS, do not make a round trip to the open market, there to be sold at inflated rates. Such fears are not wholly unfounded when one recalls the food riots of October 2007 and earlier still in 1966.
The fineprint of the Chief Minister’s statement must be that the supply chain has been disrupted at the peak of the crisis. Hence the directive to Posta traders to accommodate daily labourers in dharmashalas, and to provide them with meals.
Many if not most of them, are migrants from neighbouring states, now stranded in Kolkata. Also on the anvil is a skeletal bus service to transport the labourers. Local youth are to be inducted on a daily wage of Rs 250 for loading and unloading operations.
It is cause for alarm that the Chief Minister’s office has received several complaints of movement of essential commodities being impeded. Also impeded has been the movement of buyers despite the possession of a ration card. It beggars belief that persons with a medical prescription have been halted on their way to the drug store.
The overdrive by the cops has already led to action against eight policemen. “No one should come in the way of the movement of essential commodities. A person going to the ration shop will be having a ration card; allow him. So should a person going to a medicine shop; he must be having a prescription.”
Confusion gets worse confounded with the sharp decline in the number of trucks that carry foodgrain and vegetables. Almost inevitably, this has had a ripple effect on the movement of food in the time of shortage. It is fervently to be hoped that the Union Home Ministry’s directive to all states to monitor the situation will ease traffic on the high road. But at the end of the day, it is the state administration that will have to deliver.