Nitish Kumar government already has hands full; mills may not want to lift more
The Bihar government has procured more than 20 lakh tonnes paddy through April — the highest in six years.
This should ideally help the state government provide free ration — mainly rice — to the poor, including thousands of migrant workers who have returned to their towns and villages in Bihar, facing long-term unemployment because of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
But will it?
The state government will find it to be an uphill task to do so, not just because of the thousands of migrant workers that reach the state everyday — through shramik trains — but also because of procedural lapses that prevent the paddy from being converted into rice grains that will help feed the migrants.
The state government estimates over 280,000 of its migrant workers were stranded across the country, on the basis of calls it received on its helpline numbers, with some experts estimating the number to be not less than 400,000.
If 20-25 per cent of them returned to Bihar, it would become difficult for the state government to feed them through the public distribution system (PDS) immediately.
To further compound the problem, the state food corporation (SFC) is not taking rice from the primary agriculture cooperative societies (PACS) and vyapar mandals (trade boards) that have procured the paddy directly from 2.50 lakh farmers in each panchayat, according to a senior official in Bihar’s cooperative department.
The PACS and mandals hand over the procured paddy to rice mills that grind it into grain that is then bought by the SFC. The SFC then sends the rice to the PDS system, where the state’s 1.68 crore ration card holders receive their grain from, which the government had announced it would provide because of the lockdown.
The SFC, however, purchased only 7.56 lakh tonnes of rice, from the 13.40 lakh tonnes that the PACS have to offer, because of a shortage of jute bags, according to the official.
Godowns across the state, as a result, are full of paddy, having an indirect, adverse impact on the procurement of wheat. PACS demand the government to provide adequate jute bags to supply rice to SFC.
“Rice mills are also not ready to take all the paddy from PACS to grind it into rice as SFC is not showing interest in taking the rice from their godowns,” the official said.
The 8,463 PACS and 500 mandals, as a result, worry the quality of paddy left in the balance may deteriorate over time — not just because of the limited space available in the godowns, but also because of untimely rains that have lashed the state since mid-April. When several of the godowns become full with paddy, PACS and mandals are forced to keep the remaining amount out in the open, severely affecting the crop.
Some of PACS have godowns with capacities of 1,000 tonnes while others have capacities of 500 tonnes, 200 tonnes and 100 tonnes. The total capacity of all the godowns owned by PACS across the state is about 11 lakh tonnes.
“There is no problem of paddy storage because we have over 4,500 godowns and PACS and mandals have their own godowns to keep paddy,” Bihar’s cooperative minister Rana Randhir told Down to Earth.
Government agencies have paid over 90 per cent farmers for procurement of paddy from them this year, according to data from the cooperative department.
The state’s procured paddy on support price, directly from 2.50 lakh farmers in each panchayat, said Sambhu Sen Kumar, the nodal officer for paddy procurement in the cooperative department.
“The paddy procurement date was extended by the government in view of the lockdown, giving farmers more time to sell their paddy,” he said. “The date for paddy procurement earlier was March 31,” he added.
Government agencies procured 16.63 lakh tonnes of paddy from 2.32 lakh farmers till March 31. The final procurement, however, increased because of the date extension.
The government had fixed the target for paddy procurement at 30 lakh tonnes for this kharif season. The slow speed of paddy procurement that started in Bihar on November 15, 2019, initially forced farmers to sell their crop to traders and agents of rice mills, according to reports from districts.
The state government fixed a rate of Rs 1,815 per quintal as the minimum support price (MSP), but farmers were forced to sell paddy to traders at the lower rate of Rs 1,350 per quintal till early February this year.
Government agencies, in 2018-19, procured 14.16 lakh tonnes of paddy, less than half of the target of 30 lakh tonnes. In 2017-18, the procurement was at 11.84 lakh tonnes, 18.42 lakh tonnes in 2016-17, 18.33 lakh tonnes in 2015-16 and 19.01 lakh tonnes at 2014-15.
There were 546 reported cases of COVID-19 in 32 out of 38 districts till May 7, with Munger reporting the highest number of cases at 102. Of the 542 cases, nearly 400 cases were reported since April 23.
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