After three months of freak weather, now the fussy procurement agencies are punishing wheat farmers. Since the quality of wheat arriving in the grain markets is below even the lowered limit, the state government has approached the Centre for fresh relaxations to get procurement moving again.
The Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the six procurement agencies of the state are reluctant to buy the stock coming into most of the 1,814 mandis and wheat procurement centres. “Our ground staff, the inspectors especially, don’t want to take any risk, since the wheat quality is much below the relaxed specifications, and it may take the Centre a few more days to set new bar,” said an officer in the Punjab food and civil supplies department.
Wheat within the specified relaxed limit was being lifted, said the officer, adding: “Inspectors are justified in taking a stand, because the procured wheat reflects on their performance and if the FCI declines to buy it further, they’ll be held responsible.”
The chaos in the mandis is also on account of late start to the process of procurement. “The state officers kept waiting for weather to improve, and never approached the Centre for relaxation in norms; while Haryana acted on field reports and got the Centre’s consent much before Punjab could,” said the officer.
Adding to the chaos, the state agencies are yet to finalise the transport and lifting contracts. The Punjab government has also inadequate number of gunny bags for packaging procured wheat. At many procurement centres, the supply of these bags is awaited.
Structural support is aplenty but its management is weak. “Punjab and Haryana have been doing procurement for the past 50 years and the annual turnover out of this has touched `60,000 crore. We can’t blame the infrastructure. The delay is in decision making,” said an expert on the subject of procurement.
Sticking to his stand that relaxation could only be sought after the grain started to arrive in mandis, food and civil supplies minister Adaish Partap Singh Kairon had invited the central team to assess the crop only when the produce had hit the grain markets.
To the shock of farmers, production fell 10 to 30%. Besides, agriculture is a huge operation in which a major part of Punjab’s population is engaged, and managing the highest wheat production in the country is never easy.
What went wrong for Punjab
Rain and hail
Punjab farmers’ woes began with weather damaging the wheat crop which was almost ready for harvest. The unseasonal rain damaged the quality of grain.
Inactive food minister
Food minister Adaish Pratap Singh Kairon, son-in-law of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, woke up from his slumber after much delay, and that too when wheat had already started arriving in grain markets. He knocked at the Centre’s doors to seek relaxation in procurement norms on April 22, almost over a week after Haryana got procurement norms relaxed.
The handling and transportation (H&T) contracts have to be in place at least two months before the procurement season begins. This system, however, is still not in place fully in major parts of the state, leading to wheat lifting woes. Even as farmers began bringing wheat to grain markets, the tender process of H&T was not yet complete.
In H&T, a cartel involving even politicians of different hues is allegedly involved indirectly. Lifting grains from mandis up to godowns is a money-spinning business. Major reason behind delay in completing the H&T process is said to be some vested interests in the Parkash Singh Badal government.
Grain markets began choking as the lifting process was tardy or near-absent. The procurement is primarily a multi-department operation, but the food minister’s silo approach contributed to causing a glut across grain markets of Punjab. Kairon has centralised the procurement mechanism, eliminating the supervisory role of deputy commissioners. This has led to complete failure of the chain of command in the districts.
CM's late in intervention
Within the Badal clan, there is unwritten understanding not to interfere in Kairon’s department. However, last week, as things began going out of control, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal ostensibly red-flagged the issue, compelling CM Badal to intervene, after which the official machinery began dealing with this mess created by the food department being controlled by Kairon with a vice-like grip.
Govt in sleep mode
Till Monday, the state government had failed to release payments to farmers, even as wheat worth Rs 4,600 crore had been procured. In fact, the account to disburse the payments became operational on Tuesday.