Calcutta, Sept. 26: Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar today linked Bengal’s declining rice production to lack of a proper procurement mechanism that ensures the right price for the produce, an issue the Mamata Banerjee government has refused to accept in the aftermath of farmer suicides.
“The procurement mechanism in some eastern states is not as effective as in Punjab and Haryana…. In Bengal, there is scope for improvement in this area,” Pawar said during a media meet at Calcutta’s Town Hall.
The minister was in the city to attend the first meeting of the Centre’s Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India scheme. Mamata and the agriculture ministers of Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh attended the event.
Pawar hinted that Bengal should lay stress on improving its performance in procurement to “encourage farmers to invest in farming”.
“Bengal procured 19 lakh tonnes of rice (of its total production of 151 lakh tonnes) in 2011-12. But Chhattisgarh procured 41 lakh tonnes (of its total production of 60.28 lakh tonnes) in the same period,” Pawar said. The minister, however, added: “The Bengal government has taken the initiative to improve the procurement infrastructure. The situation will definitely improve here.”
Although the agriculture minister did not mention the areas in which the procurement mechanism was falling short, senior officials who attended the conference said Pawar repeatedly said a much larger portion of the produce needed to be mopped up so that the maximum number of farmers got the minimum support price.
“The Union minister said Bengal should increase its procurement target to ensure proper price for farmers. The Chhattisgarh government procured nearly 66 per cent of the rice produced in the state in 2011-12, while the Bengal administration procured only 13 per cent,” a senior Bengal government official said.
“This figure suggests that most farmers in Bengal were deprived of the minimum support price for their produce and forced to resort to distress sale,” he added.
Senior officials linked the procurement performance to lack of funds and inadequate storage capacity.
“Even though the Centre reimburses the state government for the amount it pays in procuring rice for the central pool, the state does not have the money to make an initial investment in buying the grain,” another official said.
This is why the state could not pay agencies like Confed, Benfed and ECSC to procure rice, especially during the peak season (December-February), the official said.
State food and supplies minister Jyotipriyo Mallick said the government had achieved the procurement target. “We had set a target of procuring 20 lakh tonnes of rice. Till date, we have bought 19.72 lakh tonnes. We will achieve the target by September 30, when this procurement season comes to an end,” he said.
The minister, however, accepted that the government could not increase the procurement limit this year because of lack of funds and storage capacity.
“Next year, we will set a procurement target of 20-21 lakh tonnes of rice. This (the modest increase) is because we feel we won’t get funds in advance from the Centre. Last year, we had demanded Rs 1,000 crore as advance but did not get it. We did the procurement with Rs 75 crore given by the state government. The situation has not changed much and we cannot increase our target now,” the minister said.
Mallick said the state had a storage capacity of only about 5 lakh tonnes. “But we will increase the capacity by 3.5 lakh tonnes in the next two years. We have got a loan of Rs 375 crore from Nabard under the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund to build 68 stores across the state,” Mallick added.