Mamata Banerjee at the Town Hall programme on Saturday. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
Calcutta, March 2: Mamata Banerjee today distributed cheques totalling Rs 45 lakh to clear the dues of 169 farmers who had sold paddy to the government last year but the move ahead of the panchayat polls failed to ease concerns about the deficiencies in the procurement system.
The farmers — all from Burdwan’s Manteswar — had sold paddy worth Rs 91 lakh to a local co-operative society, which failed to pay the farmers as the rice mill it had selected defaulted on payments.
With the rural polls a couple of months away, the government did not want to sit on the dues. The 169 farmers, who had launched an agitation a few days ago, were ferried to Calcutta’s Town Hall, where the chief minister herself handed over the cheques to them.
“The farmers were paid 50 per cent of their dues three months ago. But the funds for the rest could not be arranged. The chief minister realised that non-payment would send a wrong signal ahead of the rural polls. That’s why the money was released from the chief minister’s relief fund,” said a senior official of the food and supplies department.
Last year, the government had run up Rs 17 crore in paddy dues, of which Rs 16 crore has been cleared, an official said. More than 300 farmers, mainly from Burdwan and Bankura, are yet to get payment for paddy they sold last year.
The chief minister’s attempt to woo the farmers from Burdwan, the rice bowl of Bengal, did not cut much ice with them as many questioned the efficiency of the procurement machinery.
The discontent has surfaced at a time the cash-strapped state government has defaulted on paying its share of premium for a potato crop insurance, adding to the woes of farmers grappling with blight that has infected the vegetable in large parts of West Midnapore and Burdwan.
Asim Samanta, one of the 169 farmers from Manteswar who received a cheque of Rs 68,000 today, said: “I am relieved that I have got my dues. But I have decided that I won’t sell my produce to state agencies again. I had sold 1,269kg of paddy to the state last year but I received the money this year.”
Farmer Seikh Jahangir, who received a cheque of Rs 97,290, said he had already sold this year’s produce to local traders at a rate lower than the minimum support price as “I did not want to wait for payments again”.
“I have sold about 1,300kg of paddy to local traders at Rs 1,150 a quintal. I know that had I sold my produce to the state, I could have got Rs 1,250 a quintal. But I can’t wait endlessly for payments. I need money immediately,” Jahangir said.
The government procures paddy directly from farmers to eradicate middlemen, who often don’t pay farmers the minimum support price.
Farmers in large parts of the state are in trouble as the government has so far failed to start the procurement process properly this year because of paucity of funds.
According to food and supplies department officials, the state could procure only 3.5 lakh tonnes of paddy directly from farmers till February 21 against the target of 21 lakh tonnes by September.
“The major portion of the procurement target had to be met by February to encourage farmers to reinvest in the boro season (January to end-February). But that did not happen,” an official said.
“We have already started receiving complaints of distress sale by farmers because of lack of confidence in the state’s procurement machinery,” the official added.
The officials said the procurement process was yet to gain momentum because of the government’s failure to arrange for the required amount to start the process properly.
“So far, Benfed has started procurement with only Rs 48 crore while the ECSC has been allotted Rs 92 crore. Confed has started the process with only Rs 5 crore,” a senior food department official said.
A rough estimate of the department states that the agencies need Rs 1,000 crore for the procurement process.
The state government had earlier planned to take a loan of Rs 300 crore from Nabard and another Rs 600 crore from the West Bengal Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation (WBIDFC) to make the procurement process smooth before the rural polls.
“But the plan was faulty. The state co-operative bank did not get the funds from Nabard. The state was not even aware that the WBIDFC cannot give loans to procure paddy,” the official said.
Food and supplies minister Jyotipriyo Mallick, however, said procurement had been good till now. “Things will get better because the food department will give Rs 123 crore to the ECSC soon.”