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May 16, 2002 | 0700 IST
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Naidu makes hay while the sun shines

G Singa Rao

No one can accuse Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandarababu Naidu of being a slouch when it comes to taking advantage of the ruling National Democratic Alliance's dependence on Telugu Desam Party's support to stay in power. Look no further than the Food for Work Programme for the latest bit of evidence on this.

Of the total 4.031 million tonnes of rice the Centre sanctioned between September 2001 and April 19, 2002 under the scheme, Andhra bagged 2.15 million tonnes, or 53 per cent. Other states did get FWP rice, but they got modest amount, like Chhattisgarh got 626,000 tonnes, Rajasthan 580,000 tonnes, Orissa 246,000tonnes and Gujarat got 136,000 tonnes.

To top it all, Naidu now plans to corner another 1 million tonnes of rice before the end of June, on the ground that the scheme has been successfully implemented in the rice-eating state.

The chief minister has, of course, kept in touch with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and agriculture minister Ajit Singh to present Andhra's case for rice. It also helps that rural development minister Venkaiah Naidu is from the state.

The Centre launched the food for work programme last September. The programme was originally supposed to end in December 2001, but has been extended twice for three months each time. It stands to end in June, but Naidu is busy lobbying for a further extension in the hope of getting more rice for his state.

The FWP offers free rice to states to create jobs in drought-hit areas. The reason being the overflowing godowns of the Food Corporation of India. On February 1, the central pool had a stock of 56.34 million tonnes of foodgrains.

Most states, however, had been hesitant in availing of the FWP scheme as they were not sure whether payment in kind (rice) would attract people to work. But the Naidu government has exploited the scheme to its maximum.

In August 2001, before the Centre launched the FWP, the Naidu government had declared 993 of the state's 1,125 mandals drought-hit and had sought central assistance of Rs 8.50 billion to tackle the problem. But, it then seized the opportunity presented by the FWP to generate jobs in rural Andhra and implemented it across the state.

Naidu directed all departments in rural areas to bring their developmental programmes under the FWP umbrella, so that the funds allocated by the state government could be used to form the cash component of those schemes (the state government pays workers in cash too) and the free rice offered by the Centre could be used to complement the schemes.

Naidu took it upon himself to ensure the scheme's success. He constantly held video conferences with district collectors.

The chief minister has been urging the TDP cadres to undertake community development work through the Janmabhoomi scheme (where the public contributes 30 per cent of the cost of the project, and the rest is borne by the state government) and other programmes.

This time, however, he asked MLAs to motivate villagers to take up development projects under the FWP.

What has the FWP accomplished in Andhra? The state government claims that of the 534,000 projects sanctioned, 395,000 have been taken up. It says that over 150 million man-days have been created in the state so far since September 2001.

Significantly, the Naidu government has saved oodles of cash, thanks to the FWP. But for the Centre's free rice, it wouldn't have had the money for routine developmental projects. In addition to the rice offered under the scheme, the government claims that since September 2001, it has so far spent about Rs 6.50 billion for the cash component of the wages.

Had the free rice not been available, the government would have had to spend at least another Rs 10 billion on wages.

Still, the state's FWP has attracted its share of flak. The Union agriculture ministry has expressed doubts over whether rice is really reaching the targetted people.

Every year the state government puts pressure on the FCI to lift more rice from the state so that farmers get a remunerative price for their paddy.

But the agriculture ministry has raised a few fundamental questions: Is there really a drought in the state? How can the state government ask the FCI to procure more rice if it is reeling under a drought?

When the Union ministry proposed to send a team to study the implementation of the FWP, the state government strongly objected to this and, instead, suggested that the ministry to go through the details available on its Web site. The Web site has a list of the projects carried out in each district.

Allegations also abound that some of the FWP projects are being run by local contractors and that tractors are being deployed to execute the projects-something that runs against the spirit of a job-generation programme.

Last but not the least, it is said a good part of the FCI rice is coming back to the corporation in the form of levy rice from contractors and rice millers.

In some areas, contractors are siphoning away the rice and selling it to millers, who in turn, supply it to the FCI to fulfill their levy commitments.

The FCI procures only a small portion of rice directly from farmers since they can only give paddy, not rice. So, it sanctions quotas for rice millers, and they in turn procure paddy from farmers.

The state government has filed cases against more than 145 officials for colluding with local contractors and misusing rice meant for the FWP. The state unit of the BJP has also alleged that the scheme is not being implemented properly.

Some of the Opposition leaders in the state, though, agree that rural Andhra is humming with activity-link roads are being built, as are water tanks, check dams and other community work is also in full swing in at least 22 districts.

So the rice, which otherwise would have been eaten by rodents in godowns, is being put to some good use.

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