Punjab's great grain drain

Punjab's great grain drain

The facility for storing wheat is not in place even as arrivals peak.

This week, Punjab’s stock of wheat crossed an all-time high, at 108 lakh tones, even after bouts of slow procurement and delayed arrivals in markets. At first sight, this colossal stock of wheat in grain markets across Punjab reaffirms our food security vows.

But behind all the cheer lies the sordid reality.  For lack of storage facility, nearly half of the stock procured by various central agencies has been kept in the open on plinths at the mercy of the weather God and rodents.

It’s just the beginning. Pilferage and moisture will soon threaten to add insult to injury. Huge quantities of stock stacked last year in various grain markets are yet to be cleared.

Only then will this year’s fresh arrival fit in. But that may not be possible anytime soon given that in certain markets, like the ones in Ferozpur, Malout and Moga, grain stocks have been lying for several years. Rotting foodgrains lying in the open invited severe criticism from the Supreme Court during last year’s kharif procurement season in September and October.  Six months down the line, the problem remains much the same.

Only a marginal increase of three lakh tones in the total storage has been added in Punjab.

Now here’s the mismatch. There is a huge 52-lakh tonnes of wheat stock from last year still waiting to be removed from state warehouses.  Nearly two-thirds of this last year stock is on open plinths. Unless that is cleared, the fresh crop is hard to be pushed in.

Officials suggest that Punjab, after this year’s bumper crop, soon will have a situation where an estimated nearly 50 lakh tones of foodgrain from fresh arrivals during this season will find no place to store. Punjab Agro Chairman Sharanjit Singh Dhillon said it is the Centre’s job to lift the stock and it is worried that adequate storage facility has not been created.  A survey by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has pointed out that the state of Punjab alone required space to store more than 71 lakh tonnes of wheat. The state is currently finding it difficult to store that quantity of foodgrain.  Ironically, it has been able to create additional facility to store a meager 4.5 lakh tonnes of foodgrain in the last three years.    

Behind all the din of grain storage in agrarian Punjab lies the silver-lining. The process is underway to have several gigantic silos of steel to stock foodgrains in Punjab. Some have already been arranged through a private player, even as the proposed capacity through silos is expected to be way below the capacity needed to stock hills of wheat lying in the open. The Punjab government is hopeful that the beginning will set the pace for a lasting solution to the problem of storage. Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal said the policy on silos would be placed in the next Cabinet meeting. “Silos should preferably be set up in mandis or wherever space is available. The work on silos has to be taken on a war-footing so that criminal wastage or rotting of grains due to open storage is checked.” Punjab has 146 mandis and 1,746 purchase points. To begin with, silos have been put at Moga by Adani Agri-logistics and the next one is coming up in Amritsar to improve procurement, cleaning, quality safe storage and distribution of grain stocks.

Huge quantities of stock in a grim scenario sans storage space warrants greater caution.

During his recent visit to Punjab, Dr M S  Swaminathan, acclaimed as the father of the Green Revolution, observed that the impact of moisture on the quality of paddy is worrying. Malathion sprays and fumigation with Aluminium Sulphide tablets are used to prevent grain spoilage, he said. Arguably, both Punjab and Haryana are paying the price for high production. Ground water table in both states is depleting fast, courtesy the over exploitation of groundwater for irrigation. “Water-table in 82 per cent area of Punjab and 63 per cent in Haryana has gone down substantially,” a field- survey by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) pointed out this week. The study has inferred that due to subsidised power supply to agricultural sector in Punjab, the number of tubewells in the state increased from about 17,000 in 1967 to more than nine lakh in the recent years. 

D S Guru, Principal Secretary to Punjab Chief Minister, who overlooks procurement during post harvest season, said Punjab has had a bumper crop season and 99 per cent of stock has been procured by the FCI. “We are doing our best given the storage capacity we have. Hopefully, things should improve,” he said. Sources in the government said the FCI’s low rates- at just about Rs five per quintal per month-to hire more storage space for grains too is a dampener.