India

Govt Deliberately Allowing Wheat to Rot to Help Breweries: Farmers

Nimisha

Centre-appointed Rangarajan panel recommends export of two million tonnes of wheat

Record wheat production in Punjab and Haryana has brought both agony and ecstasy to the farmers and the officials of the procurement agencies. While the two States – the food basket of the country – are celebrating a bumper wheat production, they simply do not know how to store the massive volumes procured this year.

While the scientific storage capacity is limited and at best can store three-fourth of the procurement, the slow movement of stocks out of the region has compounded the woes of the two States.

So far nearly 13 million tonnes of wheat has already been procured in Punjab this season which is the highest procurement in the last few decades. It is already 2 million tonnes higher than the target of 11 million tonnes set by the State Government before the beginning of the procurement season. The Punjab Government and its agencies are wondering where to store the food grain and have hit a wall as the godowns are overflowing and the movement out of the State has been extremely slow.

Haryana is no different and the worry lines are only growing even as the State celebrates a record production. The procurement has touched 8.6 million tonnes against the fixed target of seven million tonnes.

Now that the Food Ministry supported the suggestion of Rangarajan panel to allow export of 2 million tonnes of wheat from Government stocks immediately to ease pressure on storages, the two States are breathing easy. But still the two State Governments want more. For them, the export of wheat would serve two purposes. While the problem of storage would be solved, it will also serve as an incentive for farmers as they can hope for a better MSP next year if the Centre formulates a permanent policy on wheat exports.

The C Rangarajan panel was constituted to suggest ways and means to ease pressure that record food grain production had created on storages across the country, particularly Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh in recent years. The panel suggested immediate export of 2 million tonnes of wheat from Government stocks, and additional supply of 13 million tonnes of the grain via ration shops and in the open market.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was the first to raise the demand for exports. He asked the Centre to allow export of wheat from the State, being the major producer of the crop to bail out the beleaguered Punjabi farmers already reeling under debt stress. In his meetings and letters to Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in the last couple of months, Badal has been consistently raising the demand for permitting export of wheat.

“Whenever there is an acute shortage of the food grains in the country; Punjab was always reminded of its obligation towards the national food pool. On the contrary, whenever there was surplus food production as of now in the case of wheat, Centre pays no heed to our requests, which tantamount to its sheer discrimination against Punjab,” Badal said, hours before the decision of the Centre to allow export.

Officials and agencies associated with procurement of wheat say that decision on the movement of wheat has to be taken on an emergency basis as only a month remains for the monsoon to hit the northern region. “Piles of wheat without any coverage and others where only a polythene sheet has been placed on top of the sacks could easily get rotten and become unfit for consumption after rains. It has happened in the past and the state stares at it again,” said an official, who did not want to be identified.

In fact, on the day procurement of wheat began in Punjab, it already had nearly 7 million tonnes in the godowns which was much more than what is normally kept for meeting any possible food crisis. “The movement to other parts of the country was extremely slow in the last 12 months – both Rabi and Kharif crops,” an official admitted, adding that the Centre needs to look into this aspect seriously and urgently.

A section of the farmers have alleged that the “policy of allowing wheat to rot was deliberate” as it helps some breweries pick up the rotten wheat at throwaway prices and also the flour mills who mix certain chemicals to whiten the wheat and make it fit for human consumption.

State and Centre officials deny any such practice. They simply put up their hands in despair and say what they can do when the storage capacity is not there, private sector is not coming up in the food storage sector and the food grains have to face the vagaries of nature lying in the open.

All efforts of the Centre and even the state to bring in private warehouses and build private storage capacity have failed. Given the high prices of real estate in the region and the failure of the governments to give any sort of assured guarantee for profits to entrepreneurs, no one is coming for it.

“As the investment is high and only the government and its procurement agencies are the clients, they have to come forward to give a guarantee that they would hire the godowns for at least 15 years or so and would also help initially in the investment. Unless such a policy comes out, no one will invest in warehouses,” an entrepreneur of Punjab said.

Food experts say that unless storage capacity is improved, the disparity in the availability of foodgrains in the country will continue.

“It is indeed sad when we see that one part of the country faces shortages while foodgrains rot in some other part. You cannot allow this to happen. Urgent steps are needed and one of them is to build storage capacity in areas where the concentration of population is high and then move the food grains from Punjab and Haryana to these areas,” a scientist from the PAU said.

(This article was first published in Sopan Step)

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