The three farm sector Bills cleared by Lok Sabha will not impact the upcoming paddy procurement in Punjab for which the state government has sought Rs. 35,000 crore as Cash Credit Limit (CCL) advance from the Centre.
While the state government has announced that it would procure every grain of the farmers in the paddy procurement season beginning October 1, it will also be able to collect its Market Committee (Mandi) fee and the Rural Development Fund (RDF). The government has levied 3 per cent Mandi fee and RDF each.
Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal confirmed as much. “The paddy procurement would continue as usual. It will take a few days before the Bills are enacted and notified. Our procurement will start by then. But, the state government would be losing about Rs. 4,000 crore every year after these laws come into effect,” he said.
Punjab gets about Rs. 60,000 crore from Centre every year on account of procurement of paddy and wheat. About Rs. 35,000 crore is infused into state economy during paddy season and Rs. 25,000 during wheat season, in Asia’s biggest procurement operations.
A senior functionary of state government said that the minimum support price (MSP) would not be affected immediately, but over the years, the Centre would withdraw itself from procuring the farmers’ produce leaving them at the mercy of private players. “The protest by the Punjab government (against the Bills) is not about the immediate effect but about what will come next. The dye has been cast,” the functionary said.
Manpreet Badal too feels that the Centre has started the withdrawal process. “The Food Corporation of India (FCI) has a debt of Rs. 4 lakh crore in its books. They just do not have the money. That is why they want to pull out. They may keep giving us assurances, but such assurances were given to us for GST also. If they can go back on what is a constitutional provision, then Prime Minister’s assurance in Lok Sabha does not mean anything. The effect will be visible in next six months or a year,” he added.
Punjab has a massive infrastructure to facilitate procurement of grains. It has about 1800 mandis across the state. “One requires money to maintain such massive infrastructure. Then village and link roads are also needed (to connect farmers with mandis). These roads require maintenance. These levies (Mandi fee and RDF) help maintain such infrastructure. Under the new legislations, all these levies will go. The government is already cash crunched,” said a Punjab government official.
State Food Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu, meanwhile, said the farmers had nothing to worry during this paddy procurement season. “We are making arrangements and we have already asked Centre for the CCL of Rs. 35,000 crore.”
Ashu said they were expecting 175 lakh metric tonnes of paddy. Punjab produces and procures paddy for the central pool. The CCL is advanced to the state by centre for holding the massive procurement operation.
Covid poses a challenge
Though the state government has a past experience of successfully handling wheat procurement season in April-May, amid lockdown due to pandemic, but functionaries of the government say that the paddy procurement would be different than the wheat season.
The difference lies in the fact that in April-May, Punjab had only a few cases of Covid-19 in the state but now the experts were projecting peak in a fortnight, hospitals were flooded with patients, beds were falling short and many deaths were taking place everyday. “That time we had not seen the contagion from so close. There were news reports from other countries. Also, during the wheat procurement, no farmer had tested positive. There was no spread. But now, there would be over 1 lakh cases within a week. We do not know how will we handle this. We will firm up a plan by next week,” a government official told The Indian Express.
He added that during wheat season, the government had more than doubled the procurement stations from 1800 to 4006. This helped in staggering of farmers, who were given tokens to enter the mandis so as to avoid crowd to keep the virus from spreading.
“It was a huge success. Despite our worst fears, the virus did not spread then. We got so confident that we started thinking the virus had weakened in this part of the country. But the scenario is scary now. It certainly is worrisome.”
He said the government was now looking at increasing the number of mandis to 5,000. “We have 3800 rice mills and 1800 mandis. We should be able to have as many procurement stations. This would help us in staggering the arrival of farmers. We will ensure social distancing, thermal scanners, sanitisers and stick to other protocols.”
The functionary also said that unlike wheat, paddy was a sensitive grain and it would have to be lifted immediately, “The way our Mandi secretaries are testing positive, I am wondering if we will be able to run our mandis successfully then. If there are any cases, the mandis would have to be sealed for sanitisation. We are just keeping out fingers crossed that everything goes well,” he said.
Minister Ashu said they were looking at setting up rice mills as procurement stations. “But we will face a challenge of bogus billing as the paddy will be right there in the mills. We will have to be very vigilant.”
Ashu said the procurement season would ensue as usual on October 1 and continue till November 30. “We cannot delay it as the paddy sowing was already advanced this year and the crop would start coming in early. Then paddy has to be lifted as soon as possible. “
The government is also looking at more expenditure on HR and other arrangements if more mandis are to be set up. “We should do it successfully as we handled wheat. Rest everything can be managed,” the functionary said.
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