Punjab finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal on Thursday said the state government has “no choice” but to implement the Centre’s mandated instruction on direct benefit transfer (DBT) of minimum support price (MSP) to farmers from the current procurement season that starts on April 10.
Manpreet, after a lengthy discussion with Union food minister Piyush Goyal on this issue, said the Centre rejected the state government’s demand to give more time to implement DBT for farmers. Besides Manpreet, Punjab food minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu, PWD minister Vijay Inder Singla and Mandi Board chairman Lal Singh were present in the meeting.
“Punjab ministers in the meeting agreed to implement the DBT for farmers from this season,” Union food secretary Sudhanshu Pandey told PTI.
The Centre and Punjab, however, were able to reach a common ground on the issue of extension to the new system of giving farad (land record) at time of procurement of the produce, recovery of pending rural development fund (RDF) of the previous kharif procurement and release of incidental payments to the tune of Rs. 1,500 crore.
“We had sought more time because in Punjab there is a traditional arhtiya system. ….But the GoI dismissed our demand. We tried a lot but they did not listen,” Badal told reporters after 2.30 hours of meeting. “We will have to implement the DBT for farmers from the current season itself and a new mechanism will be worked out,” he added.
Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh has called a meeting with ‘arthiyas’ (commission agents) on Friday to discuss about a new mechanism ahead of wheat procurement that will commence from April 10.
Punjab procures wheat and rice at MSP on behalf of the central government under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Currently, MSP to farmers in Punjab is paid through arthiyas unlike directly to farmers’ bank accounts in other states.
Citing reasons for rejecting Punjab’s demand, Badal said the central government was arguing that the food stock procured belongs to it and the state government is just an agent and should make payment directly to farmers.
Union minister Goyal said the arhtiyas’ role in the procurement process will continue and they will get a fixed commission of ₹48 per quintal. However, the arhtiyas in Punjab said they will go on strike from April 10 and boycott the procurement process. “We will shut mandi operations and not allow procurement to take place,” said VK Kalra, head of a faction of arhtiyas’ association.
There are 33,000 arhtiyas in the state and they are considered money bags for the political class for the reason that they handle the MSP to the tune of ₹60,000 crore every year for two procurements in rabi and kharif season and a 2% commission which make a whopping ₹1,200 crore.
“Tomorrow, the CM will meet arthiyas and take them into the loop. We will develop a system that will give some protection to arhtiyas,” said Ashu.
He said said the Centre has agreed to defer implementation of land records integration (required to track land ownership of farmers during procurement) by six months.
On release of pending RDF to state, the minister said about 2% RDF is fixed for Punjab. The state is getting only 1% and the rest 2% is pending. “GoI is not happy with the justification given by us. They assured that GoI will release arrear of 2% fee if the state government gives a credible justification on where the funds have been spent,” he added.