Mandis in Punjab are expecting about 18 lakh metric tones of wheat to arrive in the mandis as procurement starts from April 15. Although around 17 lakh farmers are engaged in wheat harvesting, the government is expecting the arrival of around 10-12 lakh farmers in the mandis to sell their produce. Add to that around 2,700 commission agents and almost 2 lakh labourers across the mandis in the states.
The main task is to ensure that this massive procurement exercise happens while maintaining social distancing norms. As a first step, this year, apart 1,434 mandis in Punjab, the government is using spaces reserved for rice shelling for unloading wheat. This means the total number of procurement points have already increased from less than 1,500 to 4,000 “so that farmers don’t gather at one place and social distancing can be maintained,” said Ravi Bhagat, Secretary Punjab Mandi Board (PMB) while talking with The Indian Express.
Why mandis should be safe
Wheat procurement involves lakhs of farmers and labourers (many from outside the state) as well as thousands of commission agents working in close proximity with each other. At a time when the central focus is to ensure social distancing, the Punjab government is using technology as well as other policy measures to ensure that procurement happens without incident.
To further ease the pressure on everyone and reduce congestion in the mandis, the duration of the procurement process has been extended. “Normally our wheat procurement season’s duration is about 20 days only, but this time it has been spread out over 47 days—that is, from April 15-May 31,” explained Bhagat.
In the same light, each mandi will be allowed to process only one-third the wheat they handled last year. The remaining produce will be diverted to new procurement centres. “For example, in Khanna, the largest mandi in Asia, the daily arrival of wheat during peak season is 1 lakh quintal but now, we have a cut-off of 30,000 quintals,” said Bhagat. Moreover, farmers from Rajasthan and Haryana have been banned from selling their produce in Punjab.
To manage these efforts, the government is using IT. Starting with the arrival of wheat to its procurement by a private or government agency, the IT section of the Mandi Board will be shepherding the process.
The IT staff has provided commission agents (or Ahrtiyas) with tokens (containing holograms), which the agents have distributed among farmers connected with them. Ahrtiyas have been told to get an entry pass issued for the farmers by punching the concerned farmer’s phone numbers, name and token number. This will allow a specific farmer to be told, through a mobile phone message, when they need to come to a procurement centre. This will also ensure that only a predesignated number of farmers enter the mandi at any particular time. The PMB has tied up with Ola for a dashboard that tracks the passes.
Around 20 IT officials at PMB headquarters in Mohali and nearly 300 in the field (as data entry operators) will be working to make the system run in an organised manner.
Maintaining hygiene and social distancing are prerequisites and hence elaborate steps have been taken to ensure these. All mandis, as well as rice shelling spaces (both open and closed), have been divided into 30 feet by 30 feet zones with instructions (written in Gurmukhi) about where to unload the wheat, where farmers are supposed to stand, where packing will be done etc. A distance of six metres is to be maintained between all individuals.
“It is a huge exercise and our staff has not been sleeping properly for the past many days. Not only this, even Indian School of Business, Mohali, is studying our entire exercise as a part of their survey,” Bhagat added.
Apart from social distancing, efforts have been made to ensure that all concerned have the facility to frequently wash their hands. Washbasins with foot-operated taps have been installed in mandis. Apart from necessarily wearing masks, labourers will be required to wash their hands every 30 minutes. The Tarantaran mandi has even installed a Covid-19 safety station for sanitizing everyone entering the mandi.
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