Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar does U-turn on milk prices after opposition attack

Under attack from the opposition, a defensive Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar Thursday denied having said that prices of milk would go up in northern India.

"This is all a media creation. I had only said that there is a difference in demand and supply of milk," Pawar said on the sidelines of a rural development conference here.        

"We have no proposal before us on milk prices," the minister added.        

The clarification came a day after Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sack Pawar from the agriculture ministry, blaming him for the soaring prices of food and other essential commodities.        

Pawar shrugged off Mayawati's demand but said the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief was unhappy with him over the central government's decision to import raw sugar in a bid to stem sugar prices.        

Pawar indicated Wednesday that milk prices could increase in northern India on account of a dip in production.        

"A major problem we are facing is the insufficient availability of milk, particularly in northern India," Pawar said in his address at the national conference of state ministers of animal husbandry and dairy here. "There is a gap of 18 lakh tonnes between demand and milk supply."        

Opposition leaders, including chief ministers from political parties opposed to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, furiously took on Pawar.        

As the agriculture minister, Pawar is increasingly seen as the face of government policies that have seen food prices, ranging from vegetables to basic cereals, soar across the country.        

Speaking in Lucknow, Mayawati said Wednesday that if Pawar was not divested of the agriculture portfolio by Jan 27, she would not attend a meeting of chief ministers the prime minister has convened to discuss price rise.        

She added: "It was irresponsible statements issued by Pawar that led to a rise in the prices of essential commodities. He has no business to remain the country's agriculture minister."         

In Patna, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United announced that milk prices would not be increased in the state. Madhya Pradesh's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan blamed the UPA government for the spiralling food prices.        

In a related development, the government Thursday hiked the monthly allocation of wheat and rice through the public distribution system to help ease prices of these essential food grains.        

"An ad-hoc allocation of 10 kg per family per month over and above the existing allocation of food grain, wheat or rice, will be made for two months – January and February – to cover all accepted card holders," a government statement said.        

The maximum selling price for wheat will be Rs.10.80 per kg and for rice Rs.15.37 per kg.         

The decision came after the Cabinet Committee on Prices reviewed prices of essential commodities, including pulses, sugar, potatoes and onions.         

The total additional allocation for the country as a result of the decision will be 10.64 lakh tonnes of rice and 25.43 lakh tonnes of wheat.         

Women MPs also hit out at the government over rising prices.        

"The central government should be more assertive," said Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar of Trinamool Congress, which is part of the UPA government. "This is a very difficult time for the poor. The middle class is also heavily hit by the price rise."         

–Indo-Asian News Service  

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