The maximum being paid for paddy is still far below the government-fixed minimum support price (MSP), as commission agents ("arhtiyas" to farmers) continue to call the shots in Punjab's grain markets.
The small and marginal farmers are at the arhtiyas' mercy because they borrowed money from these agents at the start of the paddy season for buying seed, fertilisers and pesticides. The procurement agencies have come into the market from October 1 but it has not lessened the farmers' woes in any way.
Most farmers have suffered this open theft in silence, lest the agents stop lending them money. Purchase agencies' officials have muffled the other voices by rejecting the grain over the question of quality so that farmers do not get appropriate price.
Farmers have even alleged that even in the wheat season, the agencies have made procurement through the "arhtiyas" and, and it goes on every year, in spite of the government's claims of direct purchase from growers.
"Farmer will not speak up, for they'll need loan again," said Jamuhri Kisan Sabha president Satnam Singh Ajnala, who had led representatives of different agricultural trade unions to the Amritsar deputy commissioner on Tuesday on this issue.
How the trap works
Arjan Singh of Hoshiarnagar village had good paddy crop this year. On Sunday, he brought it to a commission agent in Amritsar's Bhagtawala grain market.
"The 'arhtiya' picked up a couple of grains from the heap, tossed those from one palm to the other, and carried those away in his hand. Later, an official from a purchase agency comes over to examine the grain and tells me it has more moisture than required and a few grains were unripe," said Arjan Singh.
The commission agent assured him he would reason with the official and try to get him the MSP. After bargaining, Arjan's crop was purchased for `1,070 per quintal finally instead of the MSP of `1,345. "It was purchased not by the procurement agency but by the 'arhtiya'," said the farmer.
To prove his point, Arjan produced a piece of paper from his wallet on which the deal for his entire 68 quintals was written. The signatures, said the farmer, were of the commission agent. Arjan will get his payment after about a week, after the agent deducts the sum the farmer had borrowed a couple of months ago.
Arjan declined to name the commission agent but to prove that there was no direct purchase, he put the mobile phone on speaker and had a chat with the 'arhtiya', who said he would keep another 2% from the final payment as charges for unloading and cleaning paddy.
"My grain was well dried," said Arjan, adding: "If there was any moisture, no official examined it with any apparatus."
The 2% cut is also fleecing, as rules permit only a deduction of `4.56 for each 36-kilogram bag of paddy, which makes far less amount. "The 'arhtiyas' follow the 2% rule where the heap sold is big," said Border Area Kisan Sangharsh Committee chairman Rattan Singh Randhawa. "If the heap is small, they go for the `4.56-per-bag rule."
Bag weighs in fraud
This year, besides the Bengal (jute) sacks, the government introduced plastic bags for packing and transport to rice mills. Both have 35-kg capacity officially, but while the Bengal bag weighs 650-gram, the plastic bag is lighter at 250-gram. During purchase, the empty-bag weight is discounted from the filled-bag weight. "Even where the bag is plastic, the arhtiyas are deducting the weight of the heavier Bengal sack," said Satnam Singh of Achintkot village.
"In real, the plastic bag accommodates more paddy but the weight shown to farmers is only 35 kg," said Satnam.
The agricultural trade unions want the arhtiyas' weighing machines checked for tinkering and error.
No 'J' form
The much-talked-about J form for easy purchase is being given to only the farmers who are aware and ask for it. "In most cases, only small paper slips (as the one given to Arjan Singh) are handed out to farmers," said trade unionist Randhawa.
Farmers also have alleged that they aren't getting payment within the stipulated 48 hours, and from the past experience, expect it in a month or more.
Traders-miller nexus alleged
While the farmers are being paid less, the 'arhtyias' are selling the paddy to traders and rice millers for the MSP only, allege trade unionists, adding that procurement agencies are involved in this racket. "There's a mafia operating in the state's 'mandis' (grain markets)," said Randhawa.
Local market committee officials, who requested to be anonymous for their safety, accepted that it was the 'arhtiyas' who had purchased most paddy and sold it off to the agencies. "The rice millers get their share of the produce," said an official, adding: "This may be because farmers owe money to the commission agents."
"In these circumstances, the purchase agencies can do little but it does not mean they are not purchasing the grain, and at the end of the day, the farmer is also happy even if he doesn't get the approved rate, for the grain has more moisture than approved," the official added.