The spiralling price of this staple grain has hit Chennai’s households like never before. Deepa H. Ramakrishnan spends a morning at Red Hills that houses most of the rice mills of the city to find out why

The backbone of the city’s rice supply, or the rice and paddy markets in Red Hills, on GNT Road are bustling by the time the rest of the city begins to stir at 6.30 a.m.

Business takes place during just four hours in the morning, and at least half the wholesalers here wind up for the day by 10.30 a.m. Both the rice and paddy markets are situated on the same road, and are separated by a mix of other businessesincluding shops selling seeds, chips and plastic items.

Though the 122 mills in and around the area have been modernised from the old alar mill using 30 HP pumps and their work is far less labour intensive, traders and farmers still stick to the old methods. of cash and carry. “You cannot give a cheque to a farmer. They are only comfortable with cash transactions,” said M. Jayapalan of the Red Hills Paddy and Rice Wholesale Merchants’ Association. Rough estimates put daily transactions at around Rs. 1 crore.

Every day, as the millers and wholesalers check the quality of paddy, a mini traffic jam builds up on this section of GNT Road. “There is another piece of land allotted for the transactions. But farmers somehow feel more secure here, which is why we continue to transact business at the market itself. “Whoever pays the highest amount, buys the paddy,” Mr. Jayapalan said.

Lorries of paddy covered with tarpaulin sheets line the sides of this road by 4.30 p.m. every day, ready for the market the next day. There are over 125 wholesalers, and in a day, the mills process about 2,400 tonnes of paddy to produce 1,000 tonnes of rice. In peak season, as much as 4,000 tonnes of paddy a day comes here.

A bag of paddy weighing 76 kg after being processed in the mills becomes 45 kg of rice and 5 kg of brokens.

“Earlier it used to cost just Re. 1 to process 1 kg of paddy, but now it has gone up to Rs. 5–6, as electricity bills and cost of equipment are added. Even the prices of gunny bags add to the cost. Unpolished rice costs lesser and is healthier. But people prefer white rice so millers are forced to polish the rice,” said D. Thulasingam, president, Federation of Tamil Nadu Rice Mill Owners and Paddy–Rice Dealers Association.

Aged rice also costs more, as the miller has to store the rice and there is wastage of about 10 per cent during the process. The rice loses its viscosity and many people who like rice that is not sticky prefer it. The storage life of raw rice is also less than that of boiled rice.

The market has a band of 341 registered labourers, who are at hand to unload bags from lorries or transfer bags from one lorry to another. “Vehicles that don’t find space inside the market wait near the bypass. Each lorry keeps ready a group of labourers to transfer the gunny bags weighing 76 kg each to the mills. The labourers are paid Rs. 3-5 to carry one bag,” There is some wastage due to handling using hooks, but that is inevitable,” explained Ramalingam, a driver.

N. Unnikrishnan, who travels from Kanniputhur daily to off-load paddy bags, says that during harvest season, each labourer makes up to Rs. 1,000 a day. “Now it is off-season and we earn just Rs. 450. I have been working for 15 years now and when I started, the token that we must buy and keep to work in the area was priced at Rs. 12,500. Now it has gone up to the Rs. 55,000. When we quit working, a new entrant will have to pay us this amount,” he explained.

Despite a conscious move by a section of residents to shift to wheat, and despite the proliferation of fast food, the State consumes about 1.94 lakh tonnes of rice a month through PDS and 1.25 lakh tonnes a month through the private sector. contribution is 1.25 lakh tonnes of rice a month.

In the last decade, the price of rice has more than doubled. The wholesale prices indicate this steep rise — Ponni rice, which was priced at Rs. 20 per kg in August 2002, is today priced at Rs. 38 per kg. Between 2000 and 2002 it was priced between Rs. 17 and Rs. 19/kg. In February 2010, it touched Rs. 30/kg. In February 2012 it was Rs. 30/kg. Wholesalers attribute the spiralling rates to an increase in agricultural input costs including fertilisers, labour and transportation.

In April 2012, a bag of paddy was priced at Rs. 1,000 but the same bag of BPT variety has increased to Rs. 1,500 now. This means the rate of paddy has gone up by Rs. 11 a kg. “This year, farming has been badly hit due to the drought situation in the State. Only 6 lakh hectares of paddy were harvested as against the usual 24 lakh hectares,” said Mr. Thulasingam.

Modernisation came to the mills after the State government cracked down on them for having bonded labourers in 2000. There were around 5,000 workers then, but now there are just about 1,000 labourers. The process too, has changed. “We have gone in for equipment and need men only to operate, service and repair the machines. We need unskilled labourers only to carry the bags,” explained a senior staffer at a rice mill.

However, labour shortage has had its negative effects too. Also, due to a labour shortage, Chennai now gets rice from other districts including Salem, Thiruvannamalai, Tiruppur and Erode, Tirunelveli and Madurai too. The market, which also works on Saturdays and is open throughout the year, gets paddy from Tiruvannamalai, Theni, Cumbum and Ramanathapuram.

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