Saturday, May 18, 2024

Paddy Scam in Chhattisgarh: Harvest of Tears

The Chhattisgarh government seems to have given inflated figures of paddy procurement and squeezed farmers at each step of the procurement process, leaving them agitated. By Neeraj Mishra

The farmers of Chhattisgarh seem to have been taken for a ride. Politicians and bureaucrats are dishing out figures that don’t match as far as paddy procurement is concerned. The Congress government of Bhupesh Baghel promised that it would procure 85 lakh tonnes of paddy during this kharif season at Rs 2,500 per quintal. This is five lakh tonnes more than the last procurement by the BJP government of Raman Singh in 2018-19.

Officials now say that they have already procured 72 lakh tonnes and paid out Rs 11,700 crore at the rates between Rs 1,815 per quintal and Rs 1,835 (depending on the quality). This effectively means 7.2 crore quintals at an average of Rs 1,825. Does it match up? (One tonne is 10 quintals, so this comes to 7.2 crore quintals. Procurement is done in quintals and compilation in tonnes.)

At the end of the season when the procurement is complete on February 20, the government should have procured 8.5 crore quintals or 85 lakh tonnes of paddy and paid out nearly Rs 17,000 crore at the present rate. It has actually promised to pay at the rate of Rs 2,500 per quintal amounting to nearly Rs 22,000 crore. It has so far shied away from paying it completely.

The centre has refused to increase its intake of rice from 24 lakh tonnes. This is equivalent to 48 lakh tonnes of paddy (two kg of paddy yields one kg of rice). Back of the envelope calculations mean that of the total paddy procurement and post custom milling for which the government pays 150 per quintal to rice millers, the bill will stand at something like Rs 30,000 crore. Of this, the central government will pick up the tab for approximately Rs 9,000 crore only. The state will still be saddled with a payout of more than Rs 20,000 crore, money it does not have.

So what did the Chhattisgarh government do? It tried to limit its liability by procuring less and showing more. It started by squeezing the farmers at each step of the procurement process. First, it started a survey of all land under cultivation by farmers. This perhaps was necessary to weed out fake farmers, many of whom had sprung up in the past 15 years of BJP rule.

It has yet to put out figures of how much actual land is under paddy cultivation and how much is lying fallow. The only figure officially given out is that 19.6 lakh farmers have registered to sell their produce to the state which offers the best minimum support price. The state now claims that 13.5 lakh farmers have sold their produce and they have already procured 72 lakh tonnes.

So if another six lakh farmers were to approach the mandi, there will be a deluge of paddy. But in reality, each farmer is being squeezed to show much less area under cultivation than he had last year.

The next step the state took was announcing that it would procure 15 quintals per acre from each farmer. Then it delayed the procurement date from November 15 to December 1. When the farmers started coming in, it announced that only eight quintals would be taken and the rest later. Registration receipts being issued to farmers were stopped.

This led to restlessness among farmers at the gates of the mandi in each procurement centre. At Kawardha, they gheraoed the local tehsildar and kept him prisoner for hours. At Bijapur, they sat indefinitely on the road. In Durg, which is the chief minister’s home district, the farmers took out a huge rally against such 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 extended further to February 20 because of unseasonal rains.

If this wasn’t enough, farmers were harassed in the name of “fake produce”. This is the produce that millers or some farmers bring in from neighbouring states and show on a bona fide kisan book. The local machinery then issues a receipt to the farmer but now they are being harassed in the name of fake produce.

To add to farmers’ woes, unseasonal rains in January and the first week of February not only hit stocks but disturbed the procurement process. Several thousand tonnes of procured paddy at various centres have been destroyed. Then local body elections intervened. The process has just been completed and as the ruling party Congress has done reasonably well in it, it does not reflect the simmering anger farmers feel.

The farmers here as everywhere else in the country are a miserable lot. But perhaps more here because they wait endlessly for their elected representatives to give them what has been promised. So far, the equilibrium has not been disturbed because free rice or rice at Rs one per kg has been made available to all BPL families. The Baghel government has decided to extend the facility at Rs 10 per kg to APL families too. Thus, free rice quantities required for the year are estimated to be 32 lakh tonnes.

Now look at the figures again. The entire paddy crop in the state should be around 1.2 crore tonnes. Of this, the government seeks to procure 85 lakh tonnes. There are 19 lakh registered farmers, of which nearly six lakh don’t sell to the state.

The bill stands at around Rs 30,000 crore. The entire state annual budget is around Rs 90,000 crore. The receipts from excise, mining, transport, etc are only about Rs 35,000 crore. The state’s share in the GST and royalties will be about Rs 20,000 crore. It has been clamouring for an increase in coal and ore mining royalties but to no avail. If central assistance does not come in paddy procurement, where will the state get the money to pay the farmers? The centre, at any rate, is not likely to endorse the Rs 2,500 per quintal rate that has been assured by Baghel. It did not allow the Raman Singh government to pay Rs 300 extra over the MSP, which ultimately was paid as bonus. Baghel also aims to give Rs 650 as bonus but that is another issue as most states have been demanding that paddy MSP should be Rs 2,500.

Can this bonus distribution go on year after year for the next five years? Raman Singh managed it once in five years and that too at the rate of Rs 300. No one has the answers but the state publicity machinery continues to claim that farmers in the state have become so rich that their buying capacity has gone up by 17 percent as compared to the rest of the country. The farmers know that they have been fooled.

Lead picture: UNI


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