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Govt tardy to buy paddy

- Farmers resort to distress sale; winter rice investment at risk

Calcutta, Jan. 6: The Bengal government’s slow procurement of paddy because of alleged paucity of funds is forcing a large section of farmers to sell off their produce at a rate lower than the minimum support price, which officials fear could affect their ability to reinvest in the winter crop.

The distress sale by the farmers, mostly in Birbhum and Hooghly, will affect cultivation in the boro (winter) season. The government is depending heavily on the winter produce to meet the state’s consumption needs after cultivation was adversely affected in the kharif (monsoon) season because of floods.

Government officials said farmers had been getting between Rs 1,250 and Rs 1,260 a quintal in most districts against the minimum support price of Rs 1,310 a quintal.

The Bengal government has set a target of procuring 22 lakh tonnes this financial year, but it has till now procured only 4.2 lakh tonnes (see chart). “This is the most important period for procurement as the bulk of paddy is bought between November and January,” an agriculture department official said.

Although the Centre declares the minimum support price, the procurement is done by the state government. The Centre then reimburses the state.

According to an official, paddy farmers had been waiting since November for their kharif produce to be bought, but the state food and supplies department is still to start a large-scale procurement drive.

“Cultivation for the boro season starts in January end. If farmers don’t get proper price for their kharif produce, they will be not be encouraged to invest in the boro season,” a senior agriculture department official said.

A Left delegation led by CPM MLA Anisur Rahman today submitted memorandums in this regard to agriculture minister Malay Ghatak and food and supplies minister Jyotipriya Mullick at Nabanna.

Refuting the allegations, Mullick said: “It’s not true. Farmers across the state are getting something between Rs 1,330 and Rs 1,360 a quintal.”

The minister added that the government had set up 200 procurement centres across the state, which, according to officials, were not enough for Bengal’s 3,349 panchayats.

Farmers The Telegraph spoke to gave a different version on the rates at which they sold their paddy.

“Today, we sold our paddy for Rs 1,260 a quintal at several trading centres in Birbhum,” said Bhabani Prasad Dutta, a member of the Birbhum Dhanya Byabsayee Samiti.

The story was no different in Hooghly, where the price was Rs 1,266 a quintal today. In Burdwan, the price ranged between Rs 1,290 and Rs 1,300.

Senior government officials said the situation could put the state’s self-sufficiency in rice under serious threat.

“As farmers are not getting the proper price, they will try to hold on to their stock for some more days…. But if they still don’t get the minimum support price, the rates in the markets will crash and it will be a disaster for them. As the government cannot procure all the paddy, the farmers will incur a huge loss that will discourage them from reinvesting in the boro season. This will result in a shortfall in rice production and that would push up prices the next season,” said an official.

Primary assessments suggests that the state will produce about 95 to 100 lakh tonnes of rice in the kharif season, a shortfall of 10 to 15 lakh tonnes which officials attributed to the floods. The state will have to produce at least 40 lakh tonnes in the boro season to meet its consumption requirement of 147 lakh tonnes this year.

Senior food department officials admitted large-scale procurement could not be started because of funds shortage.

“We had a plan to start procurement with Rs 1,200 crore. But we got only Rs 300 crore as the procurement agencies could not secure loans from state government agencies like the industrial infrastructure development corporation,” a senior official said.