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Singh: India Has Sufficient Food to Overcome Shortages

The Indian prime minister says the country has sufficient food stocks, despite a drought in nearly half the country. But there are concerns the drought will intensify poverty in the countryside.

As the driest monsoon season in seven years raises the specter of failed harvests, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says bumper food grain production in the past two years will help India overcome any shortfall in food production this year.

Mr. Singh was addressing a conference of state leaders Wednesday.

"We had record production and procurement of food grains in both 2007-2008 and 2008-2009," he said. "We thus have adequate food stocks, and there is no cause of concern or fear of shortages of food grains in the country as a whole."

The government has sufficient stockpiles of staples such as wheat and rice. The government has also said it will step up imports of items such as edible oils and lentils if needed. But officials say India will not publicly announce its plans to import food because this tends to drive up world market prices.

Although the country may be able to stave off shortages, food prices are surging, hitting poor people especially hard. The drought is also expected to reduce incomes of farmers, many of whom have not been able to sow crops due to lack of rains in the monsoon season. Nearly 700 million people depend on agriculture for their livelihood in India.

The prime minister is stressing the need for measures to help farmers. He has called on all states to quickly implement a rural job scheme that provides poor families with 100 days of work a year. He says this will act as a "safety net" for farmers whose crops have failed.

"We have to redouble our efforts to mitigate rural distress rising from the after effects of drought," he said.

Monsoon rains usually come from June to September, and are critical because more than half the country's farmland is not irrigated. This year a long dry spell lasted until August, but rain began to fall this month raising hopes that farmers will be able to plant winter crops such as wheat. India is among the world's leading producers of crops such as wheat, rice and sugar.