Punjab procures wheat in the shadow of COVID-19

Here are the problems farmers face despite government efforts

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 21 April 2020

Punjab government agencies and private traders procured 349,375 tonnes of wheat in the state on the evening of April 20, 2020, the sixth day of wheat procurement.

Of the 349,375 tonnes, government agencies procured 349,095 tonnes while 280 tonnes was procured by the arhtias or commission agents, a government spokesperson said.

Punjab had produced 18,209,000 tonnes of wheat, according to the Economic Survey 2018-19. This is expected to go up this year. 

Since the current procurement is going on in the middle of a pandemic, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has ordered a health audit of the procurement centres where 1.85 lakh metric tonnes of wheat are expected to arrive till June.

The government has come up with the system of e-passes to prevent overcrowding. But this is causing problems on the farmers’ end.

Each commission agent can give e-passes to five or six farmers who are allowed to bring only one trolley for procurement, according to sources on the ground.

This is leading to smaller farmers incurring high cost of renting a trolley while those who are slightly above this category, point out to another shortcoming.

“A farmer who is hiring a combined harvester, would want to harvest the most in a day while he can take only one trolley for procurement and that too if he has a pass for that day,” Gobinder Singh, a Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) leader in Sangrur district, said.

“Otherwise, he will have to keep harvesting and storing at his end. The unseasonal rains are further adding to the anxiety of the farmer. In places like Dirba, farmers have lost up to 25 per cent of their standing crop to the hail over the last few days,” he added.

There are 18,000 combines deployed in Punjab for harvesting and threshing, according to a central government spokesperson.

The state government has developed a unique, centralised, automated, logic-based technology platform, in collaboration with OLA, for issuance of e-passes to 17 lakh odd farmers, along with online management and regulation of all trolleys and vehicular movement in the mandis.

The OLA app, installed on the mobile phones of the farmers, alerts them on the rush spots at the mandi gates to check overcrowding, according to a government spokesperson. The centralised dashboard of the app also gives alerts on pass issuance, expiry and validation.

Another major problem being faced at procurement centres is that of labour shortage, Gobinder said. A large number of labourers, who traditionally worked in the mandis have either not come or have gone back to their native states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar before the lockdown.

They have been replaced with local labourers from the rural areas that was otherwise working in other sectors.

There was talk of making use of workers registered under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) but this also has its own set of problems.

“The labourer's job at procurement centres is physically very demanding and in Punjab, a large number of those enlisted under MNREGA are women. The second issue pertains to their remuneration which otherwise is less that minimum wages. Then there is also the social aspect of misbehaviour by the arhtiyas,” Gian Singh, who is an expert on Punjab’s rural economy, said.

Moreover, in a bid to decentralise procurement, the operations are also being carried out in places like the premises of rice shellers.

“Now these are private facilities where there are apprehensions among farmers of manipulation. The government should instead utilise open spaces like stadiums, schools and village grounds,” Gian Singh said.

There is a growing demand that the produce of the farmers be weighed at their stores and then transported to the procurement centres. The farmers claim that this would streamline the process in a big way.

The farmers are also being asked to furnish a whole lot of documents. This was harassment, farmers said.

“There is also the issue of procurement of undersized grain and moisture. This is something for which the farmer cannot be held responsible. They should be given relief like it is being given to farmers in coastal areas with regards to the moisture level being more,” said Gian Singh.

It is being suggested that the government should do away with this controlled procurement.

“This can be done by ensuring physical distancing at the centres. The government should allow as much procurement as possible and engage maximum labour sitting without work in the villages,” said Singh.

“This way, the labourers would get remunerative employment and the procurement will gain speed. The labourers will be able to earn Rs 600 to Rs 700 daily that they normally make during the procurement season,” he added.

The government however has been calling for a bonus to farmers to incentivise staggered and delayed procurement of wheat.

Around 3,691 mandis (wholesale markets) have been set up to avoid crowd and congestion, of which 1,824 are on temporary basis, according to Additional Chief Secretary (Development) Viswajeet Khanna.

Khanna said 27,000 litres of sanitisers have been provided in all the mandis and 1,300 foot- operated washbasins have been installed along with overhead water tanks of 500 litre capacity each in all main and sub yards.

In addition to this, all the mandis are being sanitised with a spray of sodium hypochlorite to ensure proper sanitation.

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