More not always merrier

Year 2017 was not one of the best years for the state’s farm sector. Farmers across Orissa suffered multiple adversities through last kharif season starting from a monsoon shortfall that led to a near-drought situation to massive pest attacks on ripe paddy crops to unseasonal rains that almost washed away ready-to-harvest crops in most districts. The government did its bit to ameliorate farmers’ woes by way of aid packages. Yet, the year saw deaths of a number of farmers owing to alleged crop failure and under debt burden. The majority of deaths were reported from high production districts such as Bargarh and Bolangir, while stray cases of farmer suicides were also reported from some other districts.

Farming is the main calling of over 75 per cent of the state’s population while paddy continues to remain the staple crop grown here. Nearly three quarters of the state’s total arable land is dependent on the mercy of the ‘rain gods’. Barring a few districts of western Orissa such as Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Sonepur, and a couple of districts in the coastal region such as Ganjam and Balasore, there is little irrigation in the rest of the state. Productivity of land in the state is many notches below the country’s highest. Low awareness level among farmers, resistance to adopt modern methods of farming and crop pattern, lack of market linkages and storage infrastructure are some of the problems crippling our farm sector. Yet, they do not come in the way of the state showing record procurement of paddy year after year. The size of paddy procurement over the last decade has seen consistent rise in the state. The lion’s share of credit for this goes to decentralisation of procurement — a system that replaced Food Corporation of India (FCI) with agencies of the state.

Having said this, what has come as a surprise is the steep revision the government has effected in paddy procurement (both kharif and rabi) target this year although the sector faced serial vicissitudes. The government has upgraded paddy procurement target by a steep 25 per cent from 56 lakh metric tonnes to 70 lakh metric tonnes. The new target has stoked doubts in the minds of many. The total land under cultivation in the state has not gone up substantially to warrant the figure nor was there a rise in land productivity. Secondly, a bumper harvest will not be shorn of its attendant woes such as more procurement snags besides milling and preservation issues. The administration has not been able to open mandies when they are required forcing farmers to approach traders or resort to distress sale. A number of rice millers have defaulted to deposit custom-milled rice, leading to blacklisting of many. Crores of rupees that the government borrows from the open market to pay minimum support price to farmers for their paddy are ensnared in court cases. Acting tough on erring rice millers, the government Tuesday suspended supply of paddy to 81 rice millers in the state. This is on top of nearly a 100 rice millers that have been already disallowed by respective district administrations to participate in the procurement programme.

The state requires about 20 lakh metric tonnes of rice equivalent to about 32 lakh metric tonnes of paddy to meet its welfare programme. The remaining rice is sold to the FCI. However, the latter may not be willing to receive so much of surplus rice from the state government. Thousands of crores of rupees are still pending with the corporation. Farmers will continue to play into the hands middlemen until the government builds up adequate storage infrastructure in the state. More procurement will not necessarily be merrier for the state.

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