Farmer Kirpal Singh from Punjab’s Kapurthala district sits beside his paddy produce in the Bholath grain market. Around him are stockpiles of paddy lying in the open. Disappointment and some frustration are writ large on his face. The reason is that his produce is not even fetching him the minimum support price (MSP) that the central government has announced.
For Kirpal Singh and scores of farmers across Punjab, the post-harvest period of the paddy season has brought unexpected misery. A prolonged spell of rainfall, particularly in Setember and October, affected the crop in quality, colour and moisture content close to its harvest.
And if Punjab Mandi Board chairman and farmers’ leader Ajmer Singh Lakhowal is to be believed, the up to 15 percent loss of the Punjab farmers in this season alone comes to anything from Rs. 3,000 to 3,500 crore ($475,000-$553,000).
Farmers across Punjab have been forced to sell their produce to private rice millers and traders at much lower rates than the MSP of Rs. 1,345 per quintal for normal paddy. Many of them have ended up selling at rates ranging from Rs. 700 to Rs. 1,100 per quintal.
Trade sources say that the loss of the farmers has turned out to be a windfall for commission agents and arhtiyas who have pocketed the amount. Farmers allege that officials of government procurement agencies could have connived to loot the farmers in the name of strict norms. They allege that they were being issued MSP receipts but the payment was much lower.
“I have asked farmers to submit affidavits in this regard. There should be a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) inquiry into this,” the farmers’ leader told IANS.
The paddy procurement season started Oct 1 and bulk of the purchase was made between Oct 15 and Nov 5. During this period, the central government did not relax its strict norms on quality, colour and moisture content of the paddy brought to grain markets.
“The farmers who brought their produce to the grain markets were stuck. They could not take it back or elsewhere and were forced to sell at lower rates. The government agencies refused to lift their stocks quoting the strict norms. Only after most farmers sold their produce at lower rates, the government announced some relaxation in the norms. The farmers have been taken for a ride. It is a huge loss for poor farmers who work so hard,” farmer Ballli Singh of Tanda in Hoshiarpur district told IANS.
The Punjab government got Rs. 23,600 crore from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for paying farmers for paddy. In 2012, the RBI had sanctioned just over Rs. 16,000 crore.
“The government agencies can procure the paddy only as per the norms on quality and moisture content set by the central government. We had to reject the produce from 15-20 percent of the farmers this time. The relaxation came too late for many of them,” a senior official of the food and supplies department official told IANS in Chandigarh.
In Punjab, nearly 12 million tonnes of paddy has been procured this season, which has almost ended. Six government agencies, five of the Punjab government and the centre’s Food Corporation of India (FCI) procured over 92 percent of the produce.
The Punjab government and state Congress leaders too approached the union food ministry but the intervention came too late for the farmers.
“The central government is responsible for this. It has played politics with Punjab farmers who feed the nation,” ruling Shiromani Akali Dal leader and legislator Daljeet Singh Cheema said.
Punjab farmers are staggering under a debt of over Rs. 35,000 crore, as per Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
Punjab alone contributes over 60 percent of food grain — wheat and paddy — to the national kitty despite having just 1.54 percent of the country’s geographical area.