Meanwhile, a conviction is gaining around among desperate farmers that they are paying the price for opposition to the new Central agricultural laws.

A notice came up at the gate of a paddy procurement centre on Thursday at Somani, 56 km from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur and 17 km from district headquarters Rajnandgaon, telling farmers not to come for the next few days as there was no space to hold more dhaan (foodgrains). Similar notices came up at several centres across the state, which are currently bursting at the seams.

After a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi complaining that despite a pre-intimation by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to procure 60 lakh metric tonne of rice under the central pool for the kharif season, the state had not received a final consent. Hence, the FCI’s local units have not yet started lifting the grains.

Meanwhile, a conviction is gaining around among desperate farmers that they are paying the price for opposition to the new Central agricultural laws. Representatives of several farmers’ unions from the state have joined the protesters at Delhi’s Singhu border. Sudesh Tekam, a farm leader, says, “The Centre and state government are fighting it out and we are losing, as if we are being punished for protesting the farm laws.”

In his December 30 letter to the Prime Minister, Baghel said, “After the pre-intimation for procuring 60 lakh metric tonne, the stage government started procurement on December 1, and has procured 47 lakh tonnes from 12 lakh farmers so far. But the state is yet to receive a consent from the Foods Ministry despite several requests over phone so far.”

Baghel said the impact on procurement would adversely affect 21.52 lakh farmers. Following the letter, the Prime Minister spoke with Baghel the next day and “assured” him of taking “necessary steps”, sources in the state government said.

An official of the society handling procurement at Somani said they just didn’t have any space for more paddy. “Today, we asked some millers to take whatever they can, so that we can make space for a couple of days worth of procurement by next week.” Till January 1, the state government had procured 52.64 lakh metric tonnes.

The amount of paddy procured by the government in Chhattisgarh has been going up every year, with the number of registered farmers rising from 2019’s 19 lakh farmers to upwards of 22 lakh now. The procurement is done both for the state-based Nagrik Apurti Nigam, to be sold through PDS, and the FCI.

Millers are awaiting a clear signal from the Centre and the FCI before they can start processing the dhaan which farmers are bringing to the procurement centres. Facing economic hardships themselves, they said they were awaiting permissions to start procurement.

Said Vikash Agrawal of Rajnandgaon, “For parboiled rice, which is acquired in larger quantities and has a bigger outside market, there is absolute silence from the FCI.” Chief Minister Baghel had spoken with Food Minister Piyush Goyal too earlier, and he had promised the file pertaining to FCI procurement under the Central pool would be cleared soon, sources in the state government said.

The problems in procurement come on top of acute shortage of gunny bags or bardana to hold the paddy, which are supplied by the Centre — made worse by the Covid shutdowns. State government officials said Chhattisgarh required 4.5 lakh bundles of jute bags. “While the Jute Commissioner said they can supply 1.45 lakh bundles, they have given us only 1.05 lakh bundles,” an official said.

Shankar Sahu, a farmer, says even recycled gunny bags are now in high demand. “Earlier, they would cost Rs 20, but after Covid-19, the rate is Rs 30 per piece.” According to Tekam, “Per quintal, a farmer is spending Rs 37 or more on gunny bags, simply because the government doesn’t have any.”

Lakhan Sahu, whose village is one of the 18 affected by the shutting of the Somani centre, says, “We have had a shortage of sacks every year, but it would never stop procurement. Even local millers are not taking the produce because there is no word yet from the Central government.”

The turn of villages registered at Somani comes only once in two weeks, and Sahu was meant to sell his paddy now. But, Sahu says, “After waiting for days, when it was going to be my turn, the centre is saying they have no space. Despite having a token and sacks, I can’t sell my harvest.”

The state procures only the raw or Arwa rice, whereas parboiled or Usna rice is generally sold outside. The government has been talking of using the rising rice stocks to make ethanol, though the plan is awaiting approval.

With the state Congress government attacking the Centre, the BJP says the crisis is the result of the Baghel Ministry working “without a plan”. “The state government is usually so self-sufficient, they claim they don’t receive any help from the Centre. Now that they are failing at paddy procurement, suddenly it is the Union government’s fault?” senior BJP leader Brijmohan Agarwal says. The BJP has also been attacking the Baghel government over delayed procurement — supposed to happen in November, it was put off to December and is now expected to go on till January end.

Counters Congress leader Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, “The BJP is trying to pin their sins on us. It is very evident both nationally and in the state that the BJP is anti-farmer… The Centre couldn’t even provide us the promised gunny bags. They are not paying us our own GST money. We are still procuring more than ever, managing our resources.”

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