New Delhi: The food processing industry is bearing the brunt of the shortage of raw materials to manufacture essential commodities such as atta (flour), maida (refined flour) and other products even as both the central and state governments scramble to provide food supplies including grocery items, vegetables and fruits during the 21-day lockdown.
The lack of raw material supply is, however, not the only hurdle being faced by the food processing sector — there has been a lack of labour availability at both procurement and disposal levels along with the choking up of road transport at various state borders due to a shortage of curfew passes.
As a result, stakeholders in the industry say production has drastically dropped.
“We used to process around 200 tonnes of wheat every day to manufacture atta and maida. That has gone down by at least 60 per cent due to a lack of raw material like wheat,” Prem Gupta, a wheat trader and flour mill owner in Bihar, told ThePrint. “I used to procure wheat from Uttar Pradesh but the trucks are stuck at the state borders and we don’t know whether they would be able to reach or not,” he said.
“Though the state government is cooperating with us, the supply of packaging bags is also restricted due to the lockdown,” Gupta added. “We require at least 4,000 bags to package the items manufactured here at the factory but we are left with just a few dozens now.”
Wheat stock for just 3-4 days
Commodities manufactured by the food processing industry such as atta, maida, sooji, besan and bread fall under the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) category, which are products that are sold at a low cost and are perishable. It is for this very reason that these industries don’t stock up enough products under any situation as their very nature means they cannot stay on shelves for a long period of time.
“We have wheat stock for a maximum of three to four days to a week to make flour and other products as the wheat can’t be consumed as it is. The annual wheat season has ended and we were waiting for the new crop to be procured from states. But that has stopped completely due to the lockdown,” Sanjay Puri, president of the Roller Flour Millers Federation Of India, told ThePrint.
He also highlighted the absence of labourers. “There is no labour and truck drivers at all points of production and supply due to a lack of curfew passes,” Puri added. “The mills and even the FCI (Food Corporation of India) have contractual labour who are also missing due to curfew passes unavailability.”
Puri said the FCI sells wheat just once a week under the open market sale scheme, but that happened Thursday, leaving the mills with little opportunity to procure it during the lockdown. “The wheat will now be available only next week, by which time our stocks will end,” he said.
According to official data, the government currently has a total of 58.49 million tonnes of foodgrain in the FCI godowns, of which rice constitutes 30.97 million tonnes and wheat 27.52 million tonnes.
Pulse processing industry fares no better
The pulse processing industry too is struggling to procure raw material and manufacture products such as bakery items, ready-to-eat snacks and besan, all of which come under essential commodities.
“Around 90 per cent of pulse processing in India is done by the private sector, which is now struggling to meet the supply,” N.P. Singh of the Pulse Association told ThePrint.
An official from the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint that the situation will hit urban customers. “The government’s primary objective is to provide the poor with grains and pulses through the ration and PDS route but the supply and labour disruption to the food processing industry is set to hurt urban consumers in the coming times.”
The official added, “We are appealing to the states’ Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution to provide grains and pulses to the food grain industries but it will take some time to implement the order at the last mile.”
Speaking on the issue, former agriculture secretary P.K. Basu told ThePrint, “The government should identify a substantial number of mills in every state and provide them with raw materials to manufacture products along with facilitating the supply of plastic bags.”