India File

Where do we go with our harvested wheat?

T V Jayan/Rutam Vora | Updated on April 21, 2020

The lockdown has impacted the pace of procurement, driving prices below MSP in MP and Rajasthan, even as costs incurred due to transport and harvesting have increased

For Chandrabhan Dhaka, a wheat farmer near Fatehabad in Haryana, the lockdown imposed by the Centre from the last week of March to curb the spread of Covid-19 posed a new set of challenges.

Like most other villages in Haryana, Chandrabhan’s village, Bhutal Kalan, 16 km from Fatehabad town, too faced massive labour shortage, triggered by the reverse migration of farm workers — who normally come from parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Chandrabhan managed to harvest a part of his standing crop, but is now grappling with the bigger problem of marketing it.

In Haryana, which has a well-established procurement machinery and process as in Punjab, the public purchase of the grains began on Monday through 2,000 odd procurement points. The public purchase is largely done through the traders in mandis. Farmers who have registered with the government will get intimated about the trader and the time that the farmer takes the wheat for sale. Each trader is allowing only 4-6 farmers a day (2-3 in the morning and 2-3 in the afternoon) as there is a severe shortage of labour in the mandis to clean, fill wheat in bags, and weigh them.

Chandrabhan, who has registered on Haryana government’s ‘Meri Fasal Mera Byora’ portal, has been allowed to sell 40 quintals of wheat in a makeshift procurement point set up in Asingha village, 8 km from his village. Chandrabhan says he may have to make many trips over the next 70 days, till June 30, when wheat procurement in the State comes to an end. “I am told my next turn will be a week or 10 days later,” said Chandrabhan, who managed to sell all his wheat crop in one go last year. This time, he may have to make at least 10 to 12 trips, if the quantity restriction continues to be in place, adding to his cost.

The scene is no different in other wheat producing States like Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. As the social distancing norms kick in at the mandis and State governments fix a daily purchase quota for each farmer, to avoid overcrowding, the procurement season is set to extend this year till end-June or early July. The Punjab and Haryana governments have mooted an incentive of anything from ₹50 to ₹200 a quintal for bringing the crop late (wheat is not perishable) to the mandis, but the arthiyas feel that the sum (covering interest and storage costs) asked for should be more reasonable for the Centre to accept the proposal.

The crop is larger this year at 106 million tonnes and, according to reports, the public procurement by Food Corporation of India and other State agencies is expected to be higher at around 40 million tonnes.

At Biaora town in Madhya Pradesh’s Rajgarh district, last week, some farmers who reached the procurement centre to sell their wheat at Minimum Support Price (MSP) were in a for a rude shock. When officials manning the centre told one farmer, who came with 40 quintals of wheat after receiving a text message from authorities, that he could sell only 80 kg to them, he thought it was a joke — only to realise that they were serious.

The SMS that he received did not explicitly mention how much he can bring to the centre, but some officials told him it could be up to 40 quintals. The farmer did manage to sell 80 kg of wheat at the procurement centre at Biaora, a town less than 350 km away from Morena, a Parliamentary constituency represented by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, but the money he received was far less than the rent that he had to pay for fetching the produce, which is ₹5,000.

Another MP farmer, who has a little over two hectares of field, received a message asking him to report to the procurement centre in the afternoon of April 16, with not more than 7.832 quintals of wheat.

“It looks more like a joke. A farmer has to waste his whole day for selling a few quintals of wheat,” said Rahul Raj, State President of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan.

“They are getting to sell only a tiny fraction of their wheat at procurement centres. For instance, a farmer with 14 acres (nearly 5 hectares) of field got an SMS telling him to send little less than 8 quintal wheat to the procurement centre, whereas his total produce is around 140 quintals! And he was told he would get another chance to sell more when his turn comes again, say, after eight or 10 days,!” says Raj.

“This is not the only thing. The earlier Kamal Nath government decided to waive cooperative loans up to ₹50,000. But the cooperative banks, which are doubling up as procurement points, are not respecting this order. They are deducting half of the sale proceeds towards loan payment. As a result, many farmers prefer to sell their wheat to private traders, even though they are getting around ₹300 less per quintal,” he adds.

In Rajasthan, wheat prices have already started trending lower than the MSP as farmers, strapped for cash, are under pressure to sell their produce. At Kota APMC, wheat prices quoted in the range of ₹1,750-2,245 per quintal, as against the MSP of ₹1,925.

Mange Lal Jatav, Secretary, Kota APMC, said wheat procurement has begun while maintaining social distancing at the market yard where only wheat trade is allowed.

Dependence on harvesters from Punjab

Commenting on the challenges faced by farmers during the harvest season, Jatav pointed out that farmers in the region have high dependence on harvesters from Punjab.

Initially, wheat farmers faced the challenge of securing harvesters, usually sourced from neighbouring Punjab. But due to the sealing of the State borders following the lockdown, it was delayed which, in turn, held up wheat harvest for 10 days.

Normally, combine harvesters, mainly sourced from Punjab and Haryana, first harvest in Madhya Pradesh, then move into Kota region of Rajasthan, then to Ganganagar region, before finally returning to Punjab and Haryana. “Many of them faced difficulties with police stopping them en route during the initial days of the lockdown. Then the DGP had to issue orders to allow them to move around. A sizeable number of combines (nearly 35 per cent of the total used in Kota) is owned by locals too. Most other wheat-growing regions like Bharatpur and Alwar in the State go for manual harvest. But this time the issue was not of the availability of machines. Rather, it is the availability of operators, who normally come from Punjab, as the job is of a specialised kind. This time, many operators couldn’t come from Punjab. As a result, the rentals for combines went from ₹3,000 per hectare to nearly ₹4,000 per hectare,” says Dhuli Chand, farmer and AIKS leader in Kota. It is a story of rising costs and falling prices.

“Now the arrivals of new crop have started and we are allowing only limited number of farmers. They are given passes and based on that they bring their crop. We need to ensure that social distancing is maintained and accordingly trading activity is allowed,” said Jatav, adding that the MSP procurement has also begun at Kota from April 16. “We will see the momentum picking up from Monday onward,” added Jatav, indicating at smooth functioning of trading activities.

Dhuli Chand said the government has started allowing commission agents to buy wheat but with a limit of maximum 150 to 200 quintals a day. “If there was no pandemic, Kota mandi would have been getting at least 1 lakh quintals of wheat every day. That goes on for a month-and-a-half. But now, the arrivals are less than one-fifth of it. Normally, procurement commences in Kota division by April 1, but this time it is delayed and started only on April 16,” he said.

“While many States have restricted daily procurement from each farmer to 40 or 50 quintals as per guidelines issued by respective States, Punjab has decided to allow farmers to bring up to 70 quintals to procurement centres, which I think is a good decision,” says Ajay Vir Jakhar, Chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj.

“A more pressing issue is non-availability of jute bags. The availability of jute bags is a problem every year, much more this year because jute mills in West Bengal were under lockdown for a prolonged period of time,” Jakhar adds.

V M Singh, AIKSCC leader and President of Rashtrya Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan, says “the governments, including that in the Centre, are not respecting the farmer at all. They behave as if they are doing a favour to the farmer by giving him passes to go. Actually he is doing you a favour. Braving the coronavirus, he is working in the field so that you and I have something to eat. The nation absolutely forgets this. But these same farmers, in UP and in Haryana, are asked to pay a bribe of ₹50 per quintal for allowing them to procure their wheat under MSP. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

There is a 40 quintal ceiling in UP and in Haryana, but a farmer in Madhya Pradesh has a ceiling of 8 quintals. Even half an acre field produces more than 8 quintals of wheat. And the same farmer has 14 or 15 acres of land, he says.

The shortage of labour witnessed during the ongoing rabi harvest will spill over to kharif season.

“Most of the labourers may not return in time for sowing. I have written to Niti Aayog requesting that MNREGA labour be allowed for (rice) transplantation in kharif as well as for planting vegetables only in the farms of small and marginal farmers.” says Jakhar.

Implementation issues

Notifications issued by governments do not get implemented on ground immediately. For instance, a farmer could send potatoes to Delhi soon after the notifications issued to allow inter-State transport of agricultural produce. But the same farmer who sent potatoes to Rajasthan around the same time had difficulties with those manning the State border, who were not allowing the truck to enter.

Says Sukhpal Singh, Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad: “With procurement being concentrated more than usual in Punjab and Haryana, wheat farmers in MP, Rajasthan, have been forced to contend with lower prices, as the procurement process is proceeding slowly and farmers are in need of cash. Wheat growers here are small, marginal farmers, many in dryland areas. An incentive to bring the produce to the market at a later period will help. In principle, procurement at MSP is supposed to benefit a large share of farmers.”

He adds: “The demand by some farmers that private traders should buy at MSP is wrong. It will drive out the trade.”

As restrictions on farmers will prolong the procurement process, the Government should create more procurement centres. That will be possible if the government enlists more private players, says Siraj Chaudhry, MD & CEO, NCML. “There is a concept to make private warehouses as mandis. If the Government opens up that space, they can disperse the procurement process and give access to farmers,” Chaudhry said.

However, there is a limitation. “When the government gives in the permission for operating warehouses as mandis, they basically then say that everyone has to buy at MSP. Now for the FCI to buy at MSP is one thing and asking for private players to buy at MSP is not. That is some thing the government has to figure out,” he said.

With inputs from Vishwanath Kulkarni and A Srinivas

Published on April 21, 2020

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