Our Bureau

New Delhi, Sept. 5

A day after the Union Food and Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, announced that the Government had allowed private parties to import wheat at zero duty, as against the current 5 per cent, there was all-round confusion over the `decision'.

It began at a press conference called by the Chairman of the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC), Mr V.P. Singh, when he was asked whether the Revenue Department had issued the notification for permitting duty-free imports. Mr Singh's reply was: "We had reduced the customs duty on wheat from 50 per cent to 5 per cent (from June 28). That position stands."

On being queried whether there was a proposal to cut the duty to zero, the CBEC Chairman said that he was "not aware" of it.

The situation became more embarrassing for Mr Pawar, when it was the turn of the Finance Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, to tell presspersons, "There is no confusion". There was "no proposal" to slash the duty on wheat imports to zero, but only "a request from the Agriculture Ministry" in the light of hardening international prices of wheat, he maintained.

The divergent views of the Agriculture and Finance Minister on the `decision' had to then be taken up at a meeting of the two with the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, later in the evening. After emerging from the two hour-long meeting, also attended by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Mr Pawar sought to put the uncertainty at rest. The decision to lift the duty on private wheat imports, he stated, "will be officially notified in a day or two".

According to him, the confusion over the actual status arose because "I could not communicate the decision that was already taken to the CBEC Chairman." This delay in communication was, in turn, due to his Ministry's preoccupation with the State Trading Corporation of India's latest wheat import tender that opened on Tuesday. Mr Pawar added that the duty waiver would be applicable on all imports till December.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 6, 2006)
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