Raipur: Even after the three-month-long drama surrounding paddy procurement came to an end on February 20 in Chhattisgarh, farmers were still out on streets in at least five districts. Several members of the procurement staff in Koriya, Kawardha, Bemetara and Kondgaon had been taken prisoners by agitating farmers.
While millions of tonnes of paddy still lay unprocured due to various reasons, the government closed the Mandi gates after claiming that it had already reached its target of 83 lakh tonne and deposited more than Rs 14,500 crore in payments to farmers’ bank accounts.
The Bhupesh Baghel government had been voted into power in December 2018 largely on the promise that the procurement price of paddy would be set at Rs 2,500 per quintal. This is the first full season when it has to abide by its commitment. The Baghel government has miserably failed to do so after the Centre refused to increase its intake from 24 lakh tonnes of rice to 32 lakh tonnes as demanded by the state. It has barely been able to pay an MSP of Rs 1,815 and Rs 1,835 per quintal. The rest the Chhatisgarh government says will be paid in three instalments by the end of May.
There is still a shortfall of close to two lakh tonne in the promised target of 85 lakh tonne or 8.5 crore quintals (The farmers sell in quintals while the government calculates its stock in tonnes). So the government has to pay out at least Rs 16,000 crore only for the MSP while its burden will increase by another 6,000 crore in the coming months.
Former chief minister Raman Singh told The Wire, “The government is trying to limit its liability by procuring less and showing more. There are at least 20 lakh tonnes of paddy still remaining with the registered farmers. We will start a statewide agitation on Saturday.”
The only figures we officially have are that 19.6 lakh farmers have registered to sell their produce to the state which offers the best price as MSP. The state itself now claims that 18.45 lakh farmers have sold their produce and they have already procured 83 lakh tonnes! But only a week ago, before the extension of the deadline, it had released figures which said it had procured 72 lakh tonne and paid out Rs 11,700 crore. Curiously, now within a week not only has it procured 10 lakh tonnes, in the midst of a gunny bag crisis, it has also managed to pay out nearly Rs 3,000 crore.
The procurement process has been mired in controversy right from the beginning and, at every step, the government has attempted to limit the paddy that comes to the Mandi. First, it delayed the start of the procurement season from November 15 to December 1. When the farmers started arriving, it announced that only eight quintals will be procured as opposed to the promised 15 quintals. The registration receipts being issued to farmers were stopped. So if one doesn’t have a registration receipt one cannot sell the produce on an appointed date.
Farmers at the gate of the Mandi at each procurement centre became restless. At Kawardha, farmers captured the local tehsildar and took him prisoner for hours. At Bijapur, they sat for an indefinite period on the road. In Durg, which is the chief minister’s home district, farmers took out a huge rally against the deliberate mismanagement. The government relented and perhaps juggled its books to find some money for the procurement. The date of procurement was extended till February 15 and then till February 20.
The harassment of farmers under the guise of seizing “fake produce” has resulted in almost 49,000 tonnes of paddy being seized. This is supposed to be the produce that millers or some farmers bring in from neighbouring states and show on a bonafide farmer’s kisan book. The local machinery would issue a receipt to a farmer and then immediately go and start harassing him in the name of fake produce if he brought it to the Mandi.
To add to the farmers’ woes unseasonal rains in January and the first week of February, not only hit their stock but disturbed the procurement process itself. Several thousand tonnes of procured paddy at various centres was destroyed due to the unseasonal rains following which the local elections body intervened. The process has just been completed and, while the ruling party Congress has performed reasonably, it does not alleviate the simmering anger several farmers feel.
The farmers in Chhattisgarh, as everywhere else in the country, are in a miserable state. But perhaps more so here because they wait endlessly for their elected representatives to give them what was promised to them. So far, the equilibrium has not been disturbed because free rice or one rupee rice has been made available to all the below the poverty line (BPL) families. The Baghel government has decided to extend the facility at Rs 10 per kg to above poverty line (APL) families too. Thus the estimated quantity of free rice required for the year is close to 32 lakh tonne.
If the Baghel government is to keep its promise, then its budget will be seriously damaged for the entire five year period. It has been clamouring for an increase in coal and ore mining royalties but to no avail so far. If the Centre does not assist it with paddy procurement, where does the state get the money to pay the farmers?
The centre, at any rate, is not likely to endorse the Rs 2,500 rate that had been promised by Baghel. It did not allow the Raman Singh government to pay an extra Rs 300 over the MSP which ultimately was paid as a bonus. Baghel also aims to give Rs 650 as a bonus but that is a larger national issue as most states have been demanding that the MSP of paddy be set at Rs 2,500.