It is one of the biggest grain markets in the country. At this time of the year, as wheat is harvested across Punjab, it should be bustling with activity.
Instead, heaps and heaps of golden grain are piled up like sand dunes across Khanna Mandi’s 58 acres, with few takers in sight. Farmers are camping by the side of their grain heaps, and “arhtiyas”, the middlemen between the farmers and procuring agencies, are lounging around with little to do.
The only movement is of tractors, as more farmers arrive at the mandi with their produce. With piles of unsold wheat, space too is a constraint, and one truck has to empty its load on one of the roads inside the mandi.
“I have been here for the last six days, but nobody wants my grain. They told me it is discoloured and has too much moisture,” says Jarnail Singh, a farmer from Kapoorgarh village in Amloh sub-division near Khanna, as he stands next to his 300 quintals, running his hands through it.
“It is not my fault that it rained when the wheat was ripening. I have no control over nature,” he says. “I can’t take it back. The government has to buy it.”
At night, he covers the grain with a tarpaulin sheet and goes to sleep praying that it won’t rain.
After unseasonal rain lashed the region earlier this month, farmers across Punjab, India’s main wheat-growing state, are reeling under a double whamy: a fall in yield per acre, and a water-soaked harvest, which is also either a shade too white or too dark to meet procurement norms.
Kamaljeet Singh Gill, another farmer from Ghutundi village in Amloh, brought 200 quintals to the mandi. He too is waiting for buyers. “They (procurement agencies) want to put pressure on us. This is their tactic to make us sell at lower prices,” says Gill, whose yield fell from 20 quintals last year to 15 this year because of the rain.
Along with the uncertainty and the wheat dust whipped up from the mounds by strong winds is growing unrest. In one corner of the mandi, farmers and arhtiyas are shouting slogans demanding that the Centre relax its procurement norms and purchase the wheat immediately.
Harbans Singh Kosha, an arhtiya, says that if they do not hear from the government, they will protest by blocking GT Road on Tuesday. “Two lakh bags (1 lakh quintals) are lying unsold in the mandi. And they have not one paid one paisa yet for the 50,000 bags that they have procured,” he says.
Punjab has not seen anything like this in the last 15 years. Procurement this year started on April 10, 10 days later than usual. Five Punjab government agencies and the central Food Corporation of India are the main buyers from this mandi, apart from a few private flour mills.
Government norms disallow procurement of wheat with more than 12 per cent moisture. And it has to be just the right shade of golden, an assessment that is made on the spot by officials of state and central procurement agencies. This year, after the first few days, their visits have been irregular.
When they come, they go around the heaps with a digital meter to measure the moisture. The meter is encased in a steel box. A tiny measure of grain is fed into the box, and a metal press wound down on it to measure the water on the surface of the grain electronically. If there’s a steel box Punjab farmers dread, it must be this.
With no word yet from the Centre on the farmers’ demand for relaxation of norms, the state as well as central procurement agencies have left the rain-affected produce in the mandis. But farmers are hanging on, hoping the grain will dry under the sun and find favour with buyers on another day.
Despite repeated calls to their office and messages left with their aides by The Indian Express, neither Punjab Food and Civil Supplies Minister Adesh Partap Singh Kairon, nor Principal Secretary, Food, G Vajralingam were available for comment.
“If this continues we will have to resort to distress sale. We are just waiting for the government to do something for us. If they fail, then we do not know what we will do,” says another farmer, Dharminder Singh, of Lalheri village.
A strike by labourers of government agencies who refused to unload “bardana” (empty bags) for packing the grain from the trains which brought them to Khanna only worsened the situation. But market officials say that problem has been resolved and the bags are now available for packing.
It is no different in Samrala Mandi, a few kilometres away from Khanna. Here too, there are farmers whose grain registered 14 per cent moisture on the little black box, or are discoloured.
“I have been camping here since April 15. Various procurement agencies came and went, rejecting my produce. They say the grain has blackened. What is my fault?” says Jathedar Bhinder Singh of Sirbarpur village near Samrala.
Officials running the market committee in Khanna as well as Samrala do not have clear answers on what will happen to the rejected wheat. But they claim that procurement has hardly been affected, except on a few days when the bags for packing the grain ran short due to the strike.
“We have procured over 78,000 bags till today. There is no problem of damaged wheat. We have been directed to procure wheat at the MSP of Rs 1450, and there is no lowering of that,” says Ashwinin Moudgill, secretary, market committee, Khanna.
“We had a problem till yesterday when the bardana was not arriving. All is well today and the procurement is on in full swing,” claims the Samrala Mandi secretary, Roshan Lal.