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Time to stem the rot

Tuesday, 6 May 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Monday, 5 May 2014 - 8:52pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

By the time the ninth round of voting finishes on May 12, it will also be time for the farmer to relax. No, it is not the regular election campaigns that have exhausted him.  Nor has he been busy with door-to-door campaigns for any candidate. Neither did he have any time to attend the election rallies of political stalwarts. In fact, in this year’s elections he hardly had any time to follow the dance of democracy.

Farmers were kept busy harvesting the standing wheat crop. Ideally they would have got free of harvesting and marketing the wheat crop latest by the first week of April. But the unusual rains and hailstorms that continued as late as the first week kept them in their crop fields. In the entire northwestern part of the country the unusual rains had delayed harvesting by a fortnight on an average. The slow harvesting, the poor arrangements in the mandis and the delays caused by the tardy purchase process made them indifferent to elections.

Knowing that it is of no use to disturb the farmers, political leaders too avoided the rural areas. In Punjab for instance newspaper reports say that farming largely remained unaffected by the political heat generated by 250 candidates in the fray for elections. The picture was no different in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.  In the Khanna grain market, the biggest market in Asia, sitting over his heap of grain, Santosh Singh of Mandiala Kalan village says though some political parties are holding meetings in the villages they are drawing a blank. “Farmers have no time for them,” he told a journalist.

Not surprising therefore one finds that issues affecting farmers are largely absent in the election campaigns. Most candidates are only mentioning farmers but not talking about their problems. Why only farmers, the candidates are also not speaking about the problems being confronted in the marketing and storage of the wheat crop. What is baffling is that even the common sight of huge stocks of wheat lying in the open for want of adequate storage is not on the poll agenda of any political party. Nor is grain wastage an issue.

Travelling through the Malwa belt in Punjab, I came across mountains of grains stacked in the open at a number of places. Covered (and some places uncovered) by a black plinth cover the grain bags were lying under the open sky. I have witnessed these grains stocks lying in the open for over 25 years now. Every harvest season, the old stocks are replaced by the fresh arrivals. Nothing else has changed. The condition of the open grain storage only worsens with every passing year.

This year too there is no place to stock the fresh arrivals in Punjab and Haryana (and now in Madhya Pradesh also, which has emerged as a top wheat producer). With harvesting delayed by over a fortnight in Punjab because of freak weather conditions, it remains a depressing sight to see heaps of wheat grain lying in the mandis. Farmers complain that they had to wait for days to find a place to offload their wheat in the mandis for want of space.

Talk to officials and they blame the sluggish movement to other states resulting in stocks piling up. In another month, Punjab expects 20 lakh tonnes of wheat to be moved out. But this space so created will be taken by milled rice which is already stocked with the private rice sellers. If the government can’t find a solution to the continuing wheat storage crisis I sometimes wonder why farmers are being told to produce more. It is therefore quite evident that there is no crisis on the food production front. The crisis that the country faces is in food management.  

Despite all the hue and cry for some years now over the failure to provide adequate storage capacity, news reports say that on April 1 Punjab had a stored grain capacity of 14.3 million tonnes. The problem is that out of this, space for 12.1 million tonnes was occupied by the previous year crop harvest. With nearly 14 million tonnes of wheat expected to be procured this year from Punjab alone, roughly about 70 per cent will have to be kept in the open.

Even the CAP storage — covered and plinth — wherein gunny bags are placed on a raised platform covered by a black tarpaulin, the total storage space available is 11.4 million tonnes out of which 4 million tonnes is presently occupied. So nearly 70 per cent of the crop that has been procured this year in Punjab will be lying in open, facing the vagaries of the weather. We all know that food stocks lying in the open are prone to damage, rendering them unfit for human and even animal consumption.

In neighbouring Haryana, wheat procurement is expected to be around 8.73 million tonnes. Food supply officials are struggling to find a space to stock the fresh arrivals. Such is the crisis of plenty that in Fatehabad irate traders locked the main gate of the mandi accusing the government of poor lifting of grain. There is hardly any space for offloading more grain bags. The situation is no better in other places.

The good news is that actual procurement may be a little less than the target envisaged because as per reports pouring in, the villages along the Rajasthan border are selling wheat across the border to take advantage of a bonus that is being offered. Rajasthan has announced a bonus of Rs100 per quintal for wheat farmers.

Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh has also emerged as a major wheat producer. It expects to surpass the production levels achieved in Punjab. But again, the state faces a big hurdle when it comes to storage. It has a capacity to stock 11 million tonnes in both covered and CAP storage but like in Punjab much of the space is occupied by the previous year’s crop.

The problem of plenty that Punjab and Haryana face is not a recent one. As I said earlier, this problem has existed for almost 25 years now. Every year the government has promised action, but nothing much has changed. So much so that allowing 100 per cent FDI in storage has also not been of much help. But have we drawn any lessons from this callous neglect? How long can India afford to let foodgrains be damaged and become unsuitable for human consumption? I have never understood why can’t the government step in on a war footing to build adequate storage capacity to reduce wastage? After all, it is the duty of the government to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry.

The author is a food and agriculture policy analyst




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