Anxiety In MP, Punjab: Lockdown puts question mark on wheat procurement

Nearly 19 lakh farmers had registered themselves on the MP government’s e-Uparjan procurement portal between February 1 and 28.




First it was over two weeks of political uncertainty and now it is the 21-day lockdown to combat COVID-19 that is giving anxious moments to the lakhs of wheat growers in Madhya Pradesh.

Procurement of their produce —farmers in the state have sown a record 79.68 lakh hectares under wheat this time, against 60 lakh hectares in 2019-20, on the back of an excellent monsoon that boosted groundwater aquifers and reservoir levels — was to start on March 25. That date was postponed to April 1, even while the Kamal Nath-led Congress government fell on March 20 after battling an internal rebellion.

The new BJP government was sworn in late on March 23, but less than 24 hours later came the lockdown announcement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That has put a question mark on procurement based on the new schedule.

Nearly 19 lakh farmers had registered themselves on the MP government’s e-Uparjan procurement portal between February 1 and 28. The crop in the main Malwa-Nimar belt has already been harvested. Farmers in other regions were also busy harvesting their wheat when the lockdown was imposed.

On Wednesday, CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan told farmers not to worry, while assuring that the government would buy their wheat. The detailed instructions, including scheduling of procurement, would be issued soon. “As things stand, procurement will begin on April 1. The situation was still evolving when this lockdown was suddenly announced. We are working out how to regulate the process…,’’ said an MP official.

The lockdown has resulted in the police and local authorities also imposing restrictions on movement of combine harvesters, straw reapers and threshers. “We will ensure that the movement of these machines will be allowed after screening of the drivers. Everything will fall in place,” Chouhan assured farmers.

“If procurement does not start within the next few days, there will be huge pressure on the mandis and prices could even crash,” claimed Kedar Sirohi, farm activist and Congress leader. According to Rambharose Basotiya of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, “farmers are worried and I expect procurement to start only around April 15”.

Meanwhile, there is uncertainty over procurement operations even in Punjab, where arrivals in mandis normally start from April 10 and pick up pace after the Baisakhi festival. The latter is scheduled this year on April 13, while the present lockdown will continue till April 14.

Punjab accounted for 129.12 lakh tonnes (lt) out of the country’s total wheat procurement of 341.32 lt for the Central pool last year. Unlike MP, which contributed only 67.25 lt, Punjab has no system for registration of farmers and regulation is generally left to the arhatiyas (commission agents) through whom they sell to government agencies.

But this time, there is concern over the need to maintain social distancing in the mandis during procurement, which is usually completed by the end of April. The issue of restricting number of farmers to be allowed entry into markets was discussed at a meeting of state government officials at Chandigarh on Wednesday.

“We will fix the entry limits depending on the size of each mandi and in consultation with the arhatiyas who are in direct contact with the farmers,” K A P Sinha, principal secretary of Punjab’s Food, Civil Supplies & Consumer Affairs, said. The other major issue discussed at the meeting was arranging labourers at the mandis. An estimated 90 per cent of these labourers — who unload and clean the grain brought by farmers at the auction platforms, before filling them into gunny bags that are further stitched and loaded on to trucks — are from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

In Punjab, harvesting is yet to commence. “That should not be a problem because it can be done by combines that need only 2-3 labourers. The real problem will be finding labourers, who number 3-4 lakh in the 2,000 mandis and grain purchase centres of the state,” said Vijay Kalra, president of the Punjab Arhatiya Association.

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