The recent move of the Centre to impose a value cut on procurement of damaged wheat is snowballing into another stand-off between the farmers and the government. The Centre while announcing relaxation norms on quality of wheat for procurement last week had also announced a value cut on grains that were shrivelled or broken.

Punjab witnessed farmers’ protests on the issue at various places where different farmer organisations blocked railway traffic for four hours as announced earlier by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) which is the umbrella organisation of various farmer groups at the national level. The farmer groups have warned of intensifying the agitation in the days to come.

The Centre had relaxed the limit of shrivelled and broken grains up to 18 % against the existing norm of 6 % last week. At the same time a value cut ranging from Rs 5.31 per quintal to Rs 31.87 per quintal was announced on grains that are shrivelled and broken to the extent of 6% to 18%.

The Centre has reportedly told the states where the crop has been damaged that the wheat procured under the relaxed norms should be stocked separately and any deterioration in the quality of wheat stock procured under the relaxed norms shall be the sole responsibility of the state.

The maximum damage to wheat has been reported in Punjab where the wheat crop was hit by unseasonal rains in 16 of the 23 districts.

In its reaction to the Centre’s decision the SKM stated, “It is well known that the quality of crops suffered this season due to climate change and untimely rains. However, the government is now trying to penalise the farmers for this natural calamity by reducing the purchase price for grains through a value cut up to Rs 31.87 per quintal.”

It had further stated, “The government's decision to reduce the procurement price of wheat from the farmers on the pretext of quality is nothing but an excuse to cheat the farmers and deprive them of their rightful dues. Earlier, the government used ceilings on quantity to reduce the procurement.

“Now the government is trying to reduce the procurement under the excuse of quality, which is entirely unjustified. These anti-farmer policies are clearly a vendetta against the farmers for the historic farmers’ movement which led to the Prime Minister having to bow down before the will of the people. The SKM demands that every grain of crop must be procured at the minimum support price (MSP).”

The farmers see the move as yet another move to undermine the MSP regimen. They say that already the government has shied from implementing the MS Swaminathan Commission’s recommended formula for paying the MSP.

They added that despite announcing MSP for several crops, the procurement on MSP is hardly done on two to three crops and that too in a few states. Above all comes the move to impose a value cut.

“Isn’t it ironic that good quality wheat flour is being sold for almost Rs 40 per kg in the retail market while the government is imposing a value cut of Rs 31.87 on a quintal of wheat? It is nothing but corporate pressure at work once again.

“The whole move is towards commercialisation of agriculture at the cost of the small and marginal farmer,” pointed Narayan Dutt of Inquilabi Kendra Punjab.

“Is the farmer responsible for climate change? In the face of a very high input cost and under pressure to increase the yield, the fact is that the farmers at times use up to six times more pesticides than what is prescribed. A small farmer simply cannot afford the equipment. And now you hold him at fault for a natural calamity,” he added.

Agricultural economist Dr Gian Singh pointed out that such moves are not in the interest of the farmers. “They end up filling the pockets of officials who are to decide upon the extent of damage the crop has suffered. Above all it is the farmer who has taken a tract of land on lease for farming who is the worst sufferer. The landlords do not compensate him. All this ends up in the exploitation of the farmer,” he told The Citizen.

He added that both the Centre and the state governments should stand with the farmers in times like these.

Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann announced that the state is solidly with the farmers in this grave situation and the Punjab government will bear the entire expenditure for the loss being suffered by the farmers due to the cut by the Centre.

Trying to make a political statement he had stated at Nihalgarh in Sangrur, “We are not going to request the centre to not impose the cut but we will extract compensation for the interests of farmers when centre will seek supply of grains in terms of wheat and paddy for the national food pool.”

He said the farmers have suffered huge loss due to incessant rains but the indifferent Centre government has not done anything to bail them out. Rather, he said that to rub salt into wounds of farmers the centre has imposed a cut on the damaged, slightly damaged, shrivelled and broken grains along with those having high moisture content.

Mann added that already the centre has not released the share of state under the goods and services tax (GST) and rural development fund (RDF) adding that much to the dismay of the state now this decision has been imposed on the farmers of the state who were already in crisis due to inclement weather.

But the farmers are not enthused by the stand of the state government. “Instead of talking in terms of compensating the farmers, the state government should stand with them to challenge the Centre on its face that how dare it impose a value cut. The whole stand taken by the state government amounts to accepting that it is the farmer who is at fault,” pointed out Narayan Dutt.

The state government has claimed that hassle free procurement is on across the state and Payments are being made directly into the bank accounts of the farmers within 24 hours of confirmation of purchase. Minister for Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Lal Chand Kataruchak has stated that no value cut is being allowed and Punjab Government will never allow even a single farmer to be paid below MSP.

Among the opposition parties, it is the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) that has positioned itself strongly on the issue of value cut. SAD leader Prem Singh Chandumajra said chief minister Bhagwant Mann had failed to present the state’s case for exemption from value cuts on wheat properly to the Centre.

“The AAP government should not surrender to the central government like this and should make a case to get these cuts reviewed and withdrawn besides announcing a bonus of Rs 100 per quintal to farmers,” said Chandumajra.

He also protested against the central government directive that deterioration of quality during storage of wheat which had been procured after relaxing the norms would be the sole responsibility of the state government. He said the Centre should not penalise the state when the wheat would be stored by the former.