Lockdown Diaries: Punjab; standing between hunger and India by Amandeep Sandhu
Through this lockdown, I sit in my room to read, write and browse the internet. Additionally, I am learning to cook and manage the home kitchen. My wife, Lakshmi, has been super busy for the last four weeks. She leaves early morning, returns late evening. Her non-government organisation Hasiru Dala is working on ration relief to waste pickers, migrant labour, and daily wagers.
Neither Lakshmi, nor me, nor the government, nor the medical folks and scientists know how long the spectre of the Covid-19 contagion will stalk not only India but the world. While there are many projections on how the world economy will tailspin, one aspect is clear: there will be hunger; there will be need for food. Depending on how the contagion pans out, India’s food security could be in danger.
Punjab to the rescue
Since the food grain crises in the 1960s, with less than 1.5 percent of the nation’s land, Punjab has been standing between hunger and the nation. Punjab continued to outperform other states even when, in the early 1990s, the nation adopted the neo-liberal framework, which neglected the agrarian sector and impoverished the farmer and the farm labourer. As the nation became increasingly beholden to other industries and to information technology, every year, Punjab continued to contribute 38 percent wheat and 29 percent rice to the central pool – in effect, every third roti and every fourth morsel of rice that the nation consumes.
Two years back, the NITI Aayog glibly conveyed to Punjab that “it can look beyond the country’s food security”. Without aiding in mechanisms to make the shift in cropping patterns, without financial support to farmers, the Centre’s statement underlined the sense Punjab has imbibed over the last few decades -- a refrain I have heard often while travelling the state -- that India considers the state not to be its “breadbasket” but “its food producing colony”. At this time of national lockdown, Punjab’s fields have turned gold. The state expects a bumper wheat harvest – 182 lakh tonnes. Of this, the government expects 137 lakh tonnes will come to the market.
Wheat harvest in Punjab is mostly a machine intensive – combine harvester – activity. Procurement involves approximately 50,000 arthiyas (middlemen) and lakhs of manual labourers. The covered godowns can hold only 50 lakh tonnes. The rest is kept under tarpaulin cover and plinth storage, exposed to the vagaries of nature – rains and storms. Punjab’s pleas to the Centre for better storage facilities have, until now, fallen on deaf years. Multilayered payments involve Centre to state to arthiyas to farmers, labour and others. Around 65 percent of the 18.5 lakh farmers are small and marginal, most under debt.
This time, the additional challenge is physical distancing owing to the risk of the Covid-19 virus transmission. How then will Punjab’s farmer harvest wheat and bring it to the mandis? How will the arthiyas procure the wheat, and how will the government store it?
Punjab Government Readiness
A few weeks back, the chief minister of Punjab had asked the Food Corporation of India to lift stocks from the godowns. FCI complied and Punjab contributed 46 percent of the 16.94 lakh tonnes of food grains moved across the country to be distributed through the Public Distribution System.
To undertake this humongous operation, a cash credit limit of ₹22,900 crore has been approved by the Centre to ensure prompt procurement in all 22 districts. While there are 1800 grain markets, the government has created 4,000 purchase centres to serve local clusters of villages. Mandis are being divided into 30 feet x 30 feet areas for heaps of 50 quintals grain. 17,500 combine harvesters are operating in the state. Despite the lockdown, permission has come through for them to move as well as their repair shops to remain open. The Punjab Agricultural University has issued guidelines on precautions to be taken regarding personal cleanliness and washing machine parts. Against the total requirement of 4.82 lakh gunny bales, 3.05 lakh have already been made available.
For transfer of wheat from farms to the mandis, the Punjab government has implemented a two-stage coupon process. Arthiyas registered with Mandi Boards are being offered up to 27 lakh tokens for distribution among farmers. The tokens with dates staggered up to May-end are being issued over mobile phones and as printouts with holograms and QR Code to regulate entry to the mandis.
Since the harvest started, there have been hiccups in the issuance of tokens, mandi preparedness, the availability of labour and police support. While the government fine tunes the system, untimely rains and hail storms have partially destroyed not only the standing crop but also grain in mandis. I asked Sukhwinder Pappi from Sangrur about migrant labour not being available. He said, “Yes, some left but mostly from industry. With most other jobs at standstill, local labour is now willing to come to agriculture.”
Devinder Singh Sekhon from Ferozepur, says, “Most farmers are storing the wheat in our front yards. To avoid crowding in mandis, arthiyas should send labour to our homes and collect the wheat. For that, they need to accept minor breakage of grains. The best would be to transfer grains directly to trains and not have to store them in godowns.”
Ravi Bhagat, secretary of the Punjab State Agriculture and Marketing Board, told me the state is prioritising pick-up from small and marginal famers because they do not have enough personal storage facility. He agreed, in spite of all preparations, this harvest season, Punjab’s farmers and the official machinery are walking a razor’s edge of caution. He is still confident of success.
With this crop, the coming paddy season, and many more seasons to come, Punjab will continue to rise to save India from starvation. It will be then, once again, be Punjab’s right to demand better terms for its farmers. I hope that at least now -- when many NGOs, citizen collectives, and state governments are trying to address ration needs -- we learn the lessons the virus is teaching us: to build efficient medical systems and value the farmer who provides food security to the nation.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines