Everything seems to be going wrong for Punjab farmers. After unseasonal rain, hailstorm and strong winds in the past two months that left farmers battered, they didn’t realise that the worst was still to come. Unable to sell the rain-soaked wheat and waiting endlessly for buyers in the mandis, their patience is now running out.
First they protested in the mandis and then moved out to block trains and also squatted on the highways. On Monday, seven trains were reportedly cancelled and at least four were terminated at Beas in Amritsar. The blockade affected superfast trains — the Amritsar-New Delhi Shatabdi and Shane-e-Punjab Express. At several places, farmers blocked the highways to express their anger against the slow pace of procurement.
FAULT LINES RUN DEEPER
While chief minister Parkash Singh Badal once again promised to lift every grain of wheat that the farmers bring to the mandis, Congress leaders Captain Amarinder Singh and Partap 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 farmers’ faces.
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 state food and civil supplies minister Adaish Partap Singh Kairon had announced that despite the rain damage, Punjab expected to procure 140 lakh tonnes of wheat, against 129.35 lakh tonnes 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 from April 1 at 1,770 purchase centres.
STATE AGENCIES IN A FIX
Although the Union government had imposed quality cuts, considering that the rain-soaked wheat was damaged, shrivelled and had lost its lustre, 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 of at a later stage. The Union government 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.
SHORTAGE OF GUNNY BAGS
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. The grain markets are already chocked as farmers are bringing tonnes of wheat to the mandis every day. According to reports, 7.7 lakh bags of wheat are lying in the Khanna grain market. Finding no space, farmers are dumping their stocks outside the mandis and are waiting for their turn to sell. Even the small mandis are overflowing with wheat grains.
A similar situation had developed in case of paddy when Surjit Singh Barnala was the Union agriculture minister in the Morarji Desai government in 1977-78. However, there was no problem in procuring the moisture-laden paddy stocks then as Barnala had relaxed moisture norms from the existing 14% to 18%. Since wheat more hardier crop than paddy, I fail to understand why the state procurement agencies are not able to lift the stocks.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
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 lift the stocks.
At the same time, there are numerous reports of corrupt dealings with farmers being given kachchi 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 many grain markets. 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 Punjab is faltering on procurement even after five decades of the Green Revolution, the fault lines run deeper than what is visible.
The writer is SAS Nagar-based food security analyst. The views expressed are personal