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How Modi govt helped AAP in Punjab with decision to relax quality norms for wheat procurement

As on 15 May, day of Modi govt decision, Punjab had around 6 lakh metric tonnes of wheat from batches rejected by FCI for having shrivelled and broken grains beyond permissible limit,

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Chandigarh: The central government’s decision to relax its quality norms for wheat procurement seems to have brought some relief to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.

As on 15 May, the date of the central government’s announcement on relaxing the quality norms, procurement agencies under the AAP government in Punjab had recorded a collective stock of around 6 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of wheat that belonged to batches rejected by the FCI for having shrivelled and broken grains beyond the permissible limit of 6 per cent, ThePrint has learnt.

On 15 May, the permissible limit was raised to 18 per cent. The Centre also allowed the FCI to continue its wheat procurement until 31 May.

A senior official from the Punjab Food and Civil Supplies Department told ThePrint that the state government had been in a fix about what to do with the rejected stock in its warehouses.

“The state government had procured wheat from the farmers at the mandis. What would it do with the wheat if the FCI rejected it?” the official said. “The central government’s decision to extend the permissible limit of affected grains in a sample to 18 per cent for FCI procurement has come as a big relief for the state government.”

Punjab is the biggest contributor of wheat to the national pool. This year, of the total 179 LMT wheat procurement through government agencies (both state agencies and Centre’s FCI) recorded by 15 May, Punjab accounted for 96 LMT — nearly 54 per cent of the total, according to central government data.

This year, the state’s mandis saw 102 LMT of wheat arrive as against an expected 135 LMT. This reduced wheat production is because of extreme heat conditions in the region that caused grains to shrivel. The stock left over after government procurement was bought by private players, government data showed.

Hemant Kumar Jain, FCI general manager for Punjab, told ThePrint that the agency plans to procure all the wheat that clears the quality norms from Punjab’s warehouses, leaving what the state needs for its own consumption.

“Out of total procurement of 96 LMT by government, around 6 LMT was procured directly by the FCI from mandis, 16 LMT has been taken over by FCI from the state agencies, and 9.5 LMT will be kept by the state for its own consumption,” he said. “For taking over the rest of the wheat from the state agencies, an assessment committee of the FCI is working. The FCI will take over balance wheat from state government agencies, provided they clear the procurement norm [with less than 18 per cent shrivelled or broken grains].”

A senior AAP functionary told ThePrint that the issue was especially sensitive for the party given its national ambitions. 

“The party (AAP) was specifically anxious because it is expanding its footprints across the country now, challenging the BJP in several states,” the AAP functionary said. “The BJP-led central government could have caused trouble on the wheat procurement issue.”

Also Read: India ‘unlikely’ to revoke wheat export ban despite pressure. Now US to debate issue at UNSC

How it happened

The senior Punjab government official said that the state government had written at least four letters — including one by Mann and another by the state’s Food and Civil Supplies Minister Lal Chand Kataruchak — to the central government over a period of four weeks. 

The state government’s letters went unanswered until the 15 May announcement, the official said.    

“Hopefully, all wheat produced this year will now get approval from the FCI. None of the batches is likely to have more than 18 per cent damaged grains,” added the government official.

Generally, states are allowed to mix healthy grains from multiple rejected consignments to create new batches to offer to the FCI, he said.

For instance, if a consignment is found with 20 per cent damaged grains, state procurement agencies separate the healthy ones from the broken grains, and mix the former with healthy grains from another batch to create a new batch of grains. 

However, this process is time-consuming.  

“Annual wheat procurement seasons have opening and closing dates notified by the Union government. So, there is a deadline. Often, such filtration and mixing exercise on a large scale turns out to be an impossible task towards the end of the procurement period,” the official said.

Also Read: Ban on wheat export is tyranny. It stops farmers from getting a windfall from higher prices

Procurement process

Grain procurement is a complicated process. In Punjab, four procurement agencies —  Pungrain, Punsup, warehousing corporation and Markfed — are mandated to procure wheat from farmers at mandis and other procurement centres managed by the agricultural marketing boards during the procurement season.

State agriculture marketing boards are bodies established by the state with the aim to regulate the agricultural market. 

These procurement agencies then hand over the procured grains to the FCI for subsidised ration distribution across the country and other schemes, and get paid for it collectively later in the year. 

Some wheat is directly procured by the FCI from the mandis and procurement centres in the state.

Meanwhile, the FCI sends its quality-assessment teams to every district in states from where it intends to procure grain. These inspection teams are mandated to go to mandis to collect samples of the grains arriving there.

Batches that do not meet the 6 per cent criterion are rejected, the government official said. 

“That is how the first round of rejected batches often surfaces. Grains are again assessed while states hand over wheat to FCI, which can lead to further rejection of batches,” the government official said.

Impact of scorching temperatures

Many parts of India have been going through intense heat-wave conditions over the last two months. 

Punjab has witnessed a 13.5 per cent fall in wheat output this year, compared to the last season, because of the scorching temperatures in late March and early April.

Heat conditions at the time of harvest affect the quality of wheat grains and often cause them to shrink. 

Farmer issues are a subject of great political sensitivity in Punjab — a state primarily viewed as agrarian. 

At the beginning of the procurement season last month, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann had promised 100 per cent procurement of the state’s wheat produce — a promise similar to the ones Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress governments had made before him. 

The AAP functionary told ThePrint that most state parties were reluctant to make any decisions that could be “tough” on farmers in the state. 

“Farmer issues are very sensitive in Punjab so every party usually thinks twice before making decisions that could be tough on the farmers,” the AAP functionary told ThePrint. “At this point, it’s a big achievement on our part that we ensured 100 per cent hassle-free procurement of wheat in our first year after coming to power.”

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: India faces flak for wheat export ban, experts fear move could trigger domino effect


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