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Separating the grain from the chaff


Chronic issues such as lack of information on opening of direct purchase centres, manpower shortage and inadequate drying yards continue to characterise paddy procurement through the government mechanism in Tamil Nadu, which is bracing for an all-time high procurement of 50 lakh tonnes this year

Even if it seems the food on your table takes a simple route to reach you, the process of fetching the grain from the field is complex. In welfare states, it involves government participation in the massive exercise called paddy procurement. Assisting farmers in getting the right or fair price for their produce, avoiding fleecing by middlemen and ensuring that the farmer who raised the crop is able to sell it without wastage are what the exercise is all about. While it sounds simple, there are myriad issues in the process.

The problems range from lack of information on opening of direct purchase centres (DPCs) and inadequate number of drying yards to high moisture content in paddy (which happens invariably during the ‘Kuruvai’ cultivation season) and manpower shortage at DPCs. To top them all, farmers are forced to pay load men at the DPCs ₹40-₹60 a bag. Drawn from local labour, the load men are employed at the DPCs from season to season. Sections of farmers feel that it is “these load men who control everything” at the DPCs.

 

At the same time, many farmers concede that the load men are not the only ones who benefit from the scheme of payment. Local officials, traders and politicians are part of the chain, they feel. On their part, the load men reject any suggestion of politicians’ involvement in the entire network, although the involvement of officials at the lower levels has been noticed by vigilance sleuths. A month ago, two officials of a DPC at Alapakkam in Cuddalore district were nabbed by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption when they allegedly took ₹15,000 from a farmer for procuring 250 bags of paddy. A year ago, while hearing a public interest litigation petition that alleged irregularities, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court directed the DVAC to raid all DPCs.

The main reason cited in the justification of payment to the load men is that a load man gets a mere ₹3 per bag in wages. While everyone agrees that the wages have to be raised, there are questions whether the load men will stop their practice even if they are given a manifold wage hike. “Yes, the load men will fall in line, provided committees, comprising competent persons and genuine representatives of farmers, are in place to man every DPC,” says K.M. Ramagoundar, a farmer of Krishnagiri district, who has facilitated the paddy procurement at a DPC in his village for a few years.

In addition to providing “reasonable income” to the load men, the extra money is used for a host of purposes, including payment of honorarium for lorry drivers who transport the paddy bags to godowns of the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation (TNCSC) and the cost of gunny bags. In some areas in the northern districts such as Madurantakam taluk, a portion of the amount goes towards electricity consumption at the DPCs, the arrangement of which, a TNCSC senior official says, will be set right in due course. Another portion is set aside for temples if the DPCs are located on temple lands. In some places of the Cauvery delta, a small portion goes to the kitty of the village panchayats concerned. “Why don’t you tell officers to ensure that the lorry drivers do not fleece us,” asks Pugalenthi, 66, a load man at the Keelathirupoonthuruthi DPC. “If that happens, I would not demand anything from farmers. For that matter, my fellow load men too,” he adds. Interestingly, a resident of Palavedu village in Tiruvallur district says it is the farmers themselves who decide how much they should pay to the load men every year.

Separating the grain from the chaff

 

However, those who oversee the procurement emphasise that they are taking every step to eliminate the “load men problem”. Dinesh Ponraj Oliver, Collector of Thanjavur, one of the major paddy-supplying regions, says TNCSC staff members have been given “strict instructions” to procure paddy without anyone demanding money from farmers. “If any complaint comes from agriculturists, the bill clerk, the helper and the watchman concerned will be relieved immediately,” he says.

B. Gayathri Krishnan, Collector of Tiruvarur, another key paddy-producing district, denies the contention that the load men run the show at the DPCs. Only senior regional managers control the movement of paddy on lorries. “There is no role for the load men in deciding when lorries go to a DPC or where they are sent for hulling or storage after procurement.”

A senior official observes that there is an element of “master-servant culture” associated with the practice of the load men collecting money. Most of the farmers acquiesce in “the system”; otherwise, there would be reprisal. Likewise, if any farmer tries to circumvent the load men, one does not require any special knowledge to anticipate the consequences. But, not many load men agree with this view. L. Ravindran, a load man of Papanasam taluk in Thanjavur district, says, “If any farmer is not inclined to pay me and my colleagues, who are 10 in number, we would quietly withdraw…”

The payment of extra money is not the only major problem. The role of sections of traders and middlemen has permeated into the overall system. It is through this network that the supply of paddy takes place, which is, of course, not unique to Tamil Nadu. Either paddy from small and marginal farmers is “collected and supplied” by the traders at the DPCs, using land records such as ‘patta’ and ‘adangal’ of the farmers themselves (‘Adangal’ is a key document that gives an account of the status of the cropped area of a farmer). On paper, nothing appears to be illegal as the money will get credited to the bank accounts of the farmers, from whom the traders will “take back their money”. The only aspect is that the traders act as intermediaries, and it is they who physically supply paddy at the DPCs.

Per quintal MSP rates fixed by the Union Government for ‘Common’ and ‘Grade-A’ varieties rose from ₹1,080 and ₹1,110 in 2011-12 to ₹1,868 and ₹1,888 in 2020-21. In these years, the State Government’s incentive for the two varieties were ₹50 and ₹70 respectively. This year, the MSP has been determined at ₹1,940 for the ‘Common’ variety and ₹1,960 for ‘Grade A’. The State has hiked its incentives to ₹75 and ₹100 respectively. File

Per quintal MSP rates fixed by the Union Government for ‘Common’ and ‘Grade-A’ varieties rose from ₹1,080 and ₹1,110 in 2011-12 to ₹1,868 and ₹1,888 in 2020-21. In these years, the State Government’s incentive for the two varieties were ₹50 and ₹70 respectively. This year, the MSP has been determined at ₹1,940 for the ‘Common’ variety and ₹1,960 for ‘Grade A’. The State has hiked its incentives to ₹75 and ₹100 respectively. File
 
| Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

 

Another method is that paddy, raised elsewhere, tends to get presented at DPCs as if it was from the jurisdiction of the centres. Prior to May, even Ranipet, not known to be a major paddy producer, witnessed procurement of an unusual quantity of paddy. An investigation is on. In August, 14 lorries, transporting paddy from other districts, including Madurai, were seized in Thanjavur district while transporting scores of bags of “unauthorised paddy”. In a similar operation in Kudavasal taluk of Tiruvarur district, the authorities got hold of 358 bags of paddy. “We are doing our best to avoid the DPCs being hijacked by traders. We have over 325 DPCs and 8 mobile DPCs opened to make the centres more accessible to each farmer and ensure that the paddy of every genuine farmer is procured based on seniority and moisture content,” explains the Tiruvarur Collector.

Aware of the problems, the government is making efforts to simplify and improve upon the system, say officials who are in charge of procurement. In mid-July, a government order was issued, giving a set of guidelines for every important stage of procurement — opening of DPCs, purchase procedure and storage and movement — and “this is for the first time that such an order has been issued,” one of the officials points out.

The location of DPCs on government lands “as far as possible,” treatment of farmers on the “first come first served” basis, the movement of paddy from the DPCs to the storage point — Cover and Plinth (CAP) of open type or covered — “preferably, the same day [of purchase] or the latest by the next day,” having an adequate stock of tarpaulin sheets and water-resistant materials for the protection of paddy, and “not even a single bag of paddy” to be kept on roads are among the important directives mentioned in the order. As stipulated by the government, district-level monitoring committees, comprising a host of officials including the Collectors concerned and two representatives of farmers, are meeting regularly. Their suggestions have been useful, observes a senior official. A helpline — 1800 599 3540 — has been set up in respect of DPCs. Mohamed Gazali, a farmer of Tiruvarur, wants the authorities to make the entire operations transparent at the DPCs, from issuing tokens to weighing the paddy only through modern instruments.

To find out the true age of rice, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), through the Thanjavur-based National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management, has developed a process, ‘mixed indicator method,’ under which rice, before being taken to godowns from mills, will be tested. This has been launched in certain northern States, says an FCI official, adding that the method will be introduced in Tamil Nadu this year.

A major initiative taken by the present government is the introduction of online registration of farmers, which came into effect on October 1. Farmers are required to provide details such as their Aadhaar numbers, bank account numbers, land, cultivation type, expected yield and quantity of paddy to be procured, besides the sort and variety of the crop. They can also book a slot for procurement, indicating their preference for a DPC. As sections of farmers had expressed their reservations, the government modified its decision and allowed the agriculturists to make a choice between the conventional system and the online registration. “We hope to have all the farmers on board at the time of harvest of paddy raised during the ‘Samba’ season,” says an official, denying the contention that the new system has been given a burial.

Mr. Oliver points out that in Thanjavur, 10,500 farmers have registered and their paddy has also been procured. In Pudukottai, the number of such farmers is 2,950. Senior officials of the Revenue Department say that ‘adangal’ will shortly be issued online after glitches are removed.

In view of the likelihood of this year’s procurement exceeding the previous year’s record of about 45 lakh tonnes, the government has drawn up a macro plan, apart from district-level plans, to handle the stock. Godowns of closed sugar mills will also be used this time, says the official. To ensure adequate hulling capacity, 50 more hulling agents have been enrolled, in addition to the existing 376.

D. Thulasingam, president, Federation of Tamil Nadu Rice Mill Owners and Paddy-Rice Dealers Associations, says the government has also allowed millers to process paddy from the TNCSC and private traders simultaneously.

Despite all the issues associated with the system, the farmers prefer the TNCSC to private traders because of “prompt payment and better rate and weighment”. In fact, after the outbreak of COVID-19, not many traders are approaching the farmers to the extent they did in the past. This has not bothered the agriculturists much as they still believe that the problems in procurement are not insurmountable.



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