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Middlemen`s intrusion in wheat procurement              
By Ibrahim Lakhiar

May 30, 2011: WHEAT procurement drive is in full swing in Sindh. A visit to most of the procurement centres, set up by the government at accessible locations to facilitate grower, shows that premises are now abuzz with business activity.

The centres, which wore deserted look and haunted by domesticated animals, have now burst into life with throngs of growers visiting them in large number. Crowds, coming and going in opposite directions, give an impression that some mini-mela like activity is going on in the area.

While looking at the movement of people of various ages and social status, one could gather from their facial expressions that some were effusing exuberance, while most others gave a pale and blank look. An informal chat with some of them led one to unfolding of stunning anecdotes. Those who wore festive faces were lucky enough to get the consignment of `bardana`. They brought back the stuffed bags with wheat and received payment at government rate of Rs950 per 40 kg.

Others, who were quite in large number, wore griming faces. They paraded centre`s premises aimlessly with little or no hope of getting any consignment of `bardana`. They loitered on the consolation that the stock had exhausted, while the next one was in the pipeline.

The federal government has fixed 1.3 million tons of wheat as procurement target for Sindh. The purpose is to keep a vigil on price fluctuations in the market. If the prices do not behave, the province releases the stock in the market to stabilise wheat price. The stored stock also enables government to meet unforeseen challenges, thrown by acts of nature like deluge, drought and earthquakes.
 

 

Government`s policy to build buffer stock is audible. Laudable is also the fixation of wheat price at the reasonable rate of Rs950 per maund. While fixing the price, the government takes note of the rising cost of agricultural inputs needed to cultivate the crop. More laudable is the firm stand, taken by the government to maintain the wheat price, despite opposition from urbanites and pressure groups.

But government`s silence over intrusion of the middlemen in wheat trade is enigmatic and puzzling. No doubt, the entry of commission agents in wheat trade is not a new phenomenon, they had been operating with impunity in the past also, but not at such a huge scale. They have virtually monopolised the market, ousting the real stakeholders out of arena. The plunge of the traders, especially in upper Dadu district with head-long velocity into the otherwise tranquil business, has vitiated peaceful ambience of the countryside.

The growers, who should be the real beneficiaries of the government`s largess, are denied `bardana` on one or the other pretext. But the traders experience no hassle in getting the same from secret locations during dead of the night with the proverbial cooperation of the acolytes of the centre for obvious reasons. It is learnt, even their stuffed bags are lifted for free from the site and transported directly in government-arranged vehicles to the depositories, located in lower Sindh, a facility allowed by the government but not offered to growers.

 

Denied gunny bags, the growers, who have no capacity to stock the produce, are compelled to revert to commission agents, whose offer price hovers around Rs90 per 40kg short of government rate. If the difference of Rs90 is worked out, it constitutes a staggering sum of Rs2 billion plus. This amount, which fills tills of the middlemen, should have been heard jingling in the poor peasants` and small land holders` pockets.

This daylight robbery, going on unnoticed under the gaze of the government, is incomprehensible. Fleecing the farmers and small land-holders, who invariably live from crop to crop and hand to mouth and whose entire family including women and children toil on the land ceaselessly, is saddening.

The middlemen, known for minting money on the toil of others, have upset government`s plans to offer growers reasonable return for using costly inputs and hard labour to produce the commodity.

The staff, guarding the godown, also does not lag behind in slicing off pound of flesh from the corpses of the growers and accepting from them plastic bags, supplied by the former and hiding them from detection amidst the mammoth stacks of bags during nightly hours. Frequent absence of the authorised staff to sign the sale deal also leads to delay in payments for days.

Growers, who deserve to be patted on their backs for bringing out the bumper crop, partly on the assumption that they would get fair deal, are extremely disappointed and dejected. Chattering classes among vocal growers are now abuzz, cogitating switch over to some cash crop in the face of wheat trade, being held hostage to unscrupulous elements in the market.

In the inflationary economy, cost of cultivation, like cost of doing business or manufacturing, goes on exponentially higher. After meeting input costs, peanuts are left. In case intrusion of middlemen in the kosher trade is not bridled, it will push more people to poverty and pauperism.

The government should pull itself together to search for some solution seriously. A simple suggestion could also be offered to allow the growers to purchase government-approved bardana from the market and fetch it for sale to the centre. Acceptance of the quantity should match the authenticated land-holdings list, supplied by the revenue department. The contested claim may be referred to higher authority.

Since government claims to be people-friendly, it will have to nip the evil in the bud before it raises its ugly head again during the next crop season.

 

Courtesy: The DAWN

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