Apr 29, 2015

Punjab's procurement muddle

A Punjab farmer takes nap lying over the heaps of wheat bags he has brought to a mandi 

Everything seems to be going wrong for Punjab farmers. After unseasonal rains, hailstorm and strong winds in the past two months had left farmers battered, they didn’t realize that the worst was still to come. Unable to sell the rain-soaked wheat, and waiting endlessly for buyers in the mandis, their patience now seem to be running out.

First they protested in the mandis. Then they moved out to block trains and squat on the highways.  On Monday, seven trains were reportedly cancelled and at least four were terminated at Beas in Amritsar. The blockade affected super fast trains like Amritsar-New Delhi Shatabadi and Shane-e-Punjab trains. At several places, farmers blocked the highways to express their anger against the slow pace of procurement.

While the Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal once again promised to lift every grain of wheat that farmers bring to the mandis, Congress leaders Amarinder Singh and Pratap Singh Bajwa did the round of mandis to assuage farmers’ anger. Politics apart, what I find intriguing is how could Punjab falter on wheat procurement when it knew what was coming. The fault lines run deeper than the despair that I see on the faces of farmers.

Punjab has been procuring wheat and rice for several years now, and one would expect a well-oiled machinery to be in place. It was in the fag end of March that the State Food and Civil Supplies Minister Adaish Pratap Singh Kairon had announced that despite the rain damage Punjab expected to procure 140 lakh tones of wheat, against 129.35 lakh tones procured last year. Five State agencies – Pungrain, Markfed, Punsup, Punjab State Warehousing Corporation and Punjab Agro Industries – along with Food Corporation of India (FCI) were to start procurement operations beginning April 1 from 1,770 purchase centres.

Although the Centre had imposed quality cuts, considering that the rain-soaked wheat was damaged, shriveled and had lost its luster, the State government had assured to lift the entire stock that farmers would bring to the mandis. In reality, this did not happen because the procurement agencies were reluctant to buy wheat that did not conform to the specifications. Official claims notwithstanding, the fact remains no agency is keen to procure wheat stocks that they would find it difficult to store and dispose off at a later stage. The Centre had made it clear that the inferior quality wheat procured by the State government would have to be consumed in the public distribution system within the State. The State procurement agencies are therefore in a fix.  

At the same time I don’t understand why the State government failed to stock the gunny bags much in advance. While the grain markets were overflowing with wheat, at least 300 rail wagons carrying jute bags were stranded because of labour problems. To compound the problem, transport unions too are reportedly dilly-dallying on moving the wheat bags out of the mandis. As a result, while huge quantity of wheat is flowing into the mandis every day, the grain markets are already choked. According to reports, 7.7 lakh bags of wheat lie in Khanna mandi alone, Asia’s biggest mandi.

Finding no space, farmers are dumping their stocks outside the mandis at many a places and waiting for their turn to sell. Even the small mandis are overflowing with grain.

I recall that during the time Surjit Singh Barnala was the Union Agriculture Minister in Morarji Desai’s government in 1977-78, a similar situation had developed in case of paddy. While Barnala had then relaxed the moisture norms from the existing 14 per cent to 18 per cent, no problems were encountered in procuring the moisture-laden paddy stocks. Since wheat is a lot hardier crop than paddy, I fail to understand why the State procurement agencies are not able to lift the wheat stocks.

Talking to farmers and senior officials, I am told the blame would rest primarily with the State Food and Civil Supplies department as well as the Punjab Mandi board. Food Minister Kairon has to explain why timely availability of jute bags was not ensured, and also his inability to tackle the transport union’s failure to life the stocks. At the same time, there are numerous reports of corrupt dealings with farmers being given kacchi parchi (receipts) and paid a distress price. I have been shown receipts which are blank. Rampant exploitation of farmers can only be witnessed if you visit any of the mandis.  

Despite such a vast network of purchase centres, I don’t find covered sheds erected in most mandis. There can be no excuse given the fact that the Punjab Mandi Board collects a lot of revenue from taxes. The mandi infrastructure is awfully inadequate. Blaming the Centre and the Centre in turn blaming the State government is not the answer. If after five decades of Green Revolution, Punjab is faltering on procurement, the fault lines run deeper than what is visible. #  

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