Even as Millions Go Hungry, India is Using Rice for Hand Sanitisers. How Wise is That?

Coronavirus

Even as Millions Go Hungry, India is Using Rice for Hand Sanitisers. How Wise is That?

Illustration: Mitesh Parmar

On April 20, a meeting of the National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC) chaired by Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, took a decision to convert surplus rice lying in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to ethanol to use for production of hand sanitisers and blending with petrol. The Centre stated that the decision was being taken to aid India’s fight against Covid-19.

This move has been met with a wave of outrage, as critics of the government point to the existing flaws in the Public Distribution System (PDS) – which makes free grain accessible to those who have ration cards – that have seen stranded migrant workers across the country and other disenfranchised sections of society staring at the real possibility of facing a food shortage.

However, though the gaps in the PDS are a reality, the NBCC’s decision was taken in accordance with the National Policy on Biofuels, 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.” However, an NDTV report states this rule has never been invoked before this occasion.

Despite the outrage that greeted the move, there is an underlying reason to it. A Press Trust of India (PTI) newsfeed, as published in Outlook India, states “According to an official data, the government has a total of 58.49 million tonne of foodgrains in the FCI godowns. Out of this, rice is 30.97 million tonnes and wheat 27.52 million tonnes. The foodgrains stock is much higher than the required norm of maintaining a reserve of about 21 million tonnes as on April 1.”

NBCC took a decision to convert surplus rice lying in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India to ethanol to use for production of hand sanitisers.

The centre’s decision will see them utilise part of this stockpile of almost 31 million tonnes of rice to make ethanol, which can go toward making hand sanitisers and blending with petrol. Seeing as the amount of surplus rice lying with the FCI is several times larger than the required amount, converting it to ethanol will allow the sugar companies producing the ethanol to produce hand sanitisers that they can then supply to hospitals and institutions, said a representative of the Indian Sugar Mills Association, as quoted by PTI. A report in Business Standard also stated that “Using surplus rice for ethanol will address the concern of about 750 million litres of grain-based distillery capacities lying idle, due to lack of feedstock, to some extent. Further, this would absorb some of the surplus rice lying with the FCI, which is estimated to be several times the required quantity.”

While there is a possibility of a food shortage, India currently has enough grains to see the country through months of lockdown. With that knowledge, the move to give the sugar industry a shot in the arm by rebooting ethanol production and also boost the production of hand sanitisers appears to be one taken with the extenuating circumstances of the lockdown in mind. The fight against coronavirus is a difficult one, and will be characterised by difficult decisions like this one.

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