Rescue, rice at a price: Kerala coughs up Centre’s flood relief bill
As Centre refuses waiver, Kerala government pays up ₹206 crore for rice allotted as flood relief in 2018; calls it ‘inhuman’
In the time of natural disasters too, neither food nor rescue is free in the country, it seems.
After repeated negotiations without much success, the Kerala government finally paid ₹206 crore for the rice allotted by the Centre during the severe 2018 floods. Kerala had received 89,540 tonnes of rice from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) in 2018 as part of flood relief efforts.
That year, Kerala was hit by the worst flood in nearly a century, in which 483 human lives and thousands of livestock were lost. The disaster of gigantic proportions cost the state heavily as roads, bridges and thousands of houses were damaged or washed away and large quantities of agricultural produce were lost, putting the livelihood of farmers at risk.
A costly aid
The ‘money part’ was reportedly not discussed when the Centre asked FCI to release the rice immediately, in 2018. However, on September 19, 2019, the state government received a letter from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, asking it to remit ₹205.80 crore for the cost of the rice that was allotted as flood relief the previous year.
Despite repeated requests, the Centre refused to waive the amount. The issue went on, and the pandemic set in. The Kerala government requested the Centre to waive the amount considering the financial distress the state underwent owing to COVID.
“Since 2020-22, the Chief Secretary wrote three times in addition to the letter sent by the Chief Minister (in May 2022) to the Central government asking for waiving the amount. The Centre refused to do any favour and thus the state government paid the price of the rice to FCI in November 2022,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the Kerala Assembly on Monday (December 12), while answering a starred question laid on the table.
For the people of Kerala, this has not really come as a surprise. In 2019, too, the state was asked to pay ₹103.71 crore against the bill produced by the Navy for rescue operations conducted during the flood. Initially, the Naval authorities denied media reports that the state was asked to settle the bill. But later, the Defence Ministry confirmed that a bill amounting to ₹103 crore was issued to the state for the use of aircraft and helicopters in the rescue operations.
Subhash Bhamre, Minister of State with the Union Defence Ministry, also shared this information in the Lok Sabha on February 13, 2019.
Naval rescue billed, too
It is unfortunate that despite rice and rescue being part and parcel of basic humanitarian aid in times of a natural calamity, the state has to pay for it, said social activists. “It is very unfortunate that a state government has to pay for the rice given by the Centre during a time of crisis. They can use their discretionary powers if they want to and waive the amount. They do it for other states but they don’t do it for Kerala,” Gopakumar Mukundan, a social activist and an adjunct faculty at the Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies in Kochi, told The Federal.
Union minister Piyush Goyal wrote to Pinarayi Vijayan on July 27, 2022, that if the amount was not paid, it would be deducted from the subsidies allocated to the state. Further, in a statement made in Parliament, Goyal accused the state government of not fulfilling its duty towards its people.
While responding to a question raised by Jose K Mani in the Rajya Sabha, Goyal said that there is nothing unusual in billing for the rice given during flood relief. The rice was given with an understanding that the state will have to pay for it later, he added.
However, the state government argued that taking money for the rice given at the time of a natural calamity is ‘inhuman’. Pinarayi, while making a statement in the Assembly, asserted that the Centre’s demand for payment was an inhuman act.
“This is totally unacceptable,” said Chennai-based economist Venkatesh B Athreya. According to him, the BJP government at the Centre is using every occasion to show the state governments in a bad light. “Tamil Nadu also received the cold shoulder during the 2015 floods despite the then government being run by an ally of the BJP. They want to discredit the state governments and use every such calamity to show the state governments in a poor light,” he told The Federal.
He also alleged that the Centre is not reluctant to give favours to the corporate sector. “The price of the rice given to Kerala in the face of a calamity is nothing but peanuts for them,” he added.
The discrimination of state governments even while they are combating natural calamities has been a topic of political debate in Kerala since 2018. The UAE government offered $100 million for relief operations in Kerala soon after the floods. The same was turned down by the Centre, claiming the government is capable of raising funds internally.
Kerala did not receive any Central assistance after the floods in August 2019 as well. Also, ₹5,908.56 crore was allocated from the National Disaster Relief Fund in 2019 to seven states affected by the south-west monsoons, but Kerala did not figure on that list at all.