Procurement amidst Covid-19: A Haryana experience
As the nation was gearing up towards combating the Covid- 19 pandemic, a challenge of epic proportions was staring down at Haryana. The land of “Mahabharata” and “Gita” was in no way stranger to the epics and was ready to take up the challenge head-on. Haryana has 80 lakh acres of cultivable land which was filled to its brim with the standing wheat and mustard crop. As the harvest festival of “Baisakhi” was approaching, it surprisingly had everyone worried this time. With the nationwide lockdown in place, harvesting and procurement of the state’s 6 lakh tons of mustard and 90 lakh tons of wheat was by no means an easy task. But, as it is often said, the government’s and the bureaucracy’s finest hour comes during a crisis. Frantic arrangements were made to facilitate inter-district and inter-state movement of the harvesters since most of the machines come from Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. The Deputy Commissioners provided the logistic support at the village level by ensuring the availability of trained personnel for operating and maintaining the equipment.
As harvesting picked up, the strategy for procurement had to be drawn out. In a normal year, the procurement of mustard and wheat commences on the 1st of April, peaks during the third week of the month and tapers down by the first week of May. Though the entire act may seem chaotic to the uninitiated, there is a lot of method in the madness and everyone goes home happy at the end of the day. Things had to be done differently this year, since allowing 10 lakh farmers to enter the 400 mandis in a month’s time would have brought us the dubious distinction of the state with the highest number of Covid positive cases.
A similar scenario in the neighboring state of Punjab made the states work together towards a promising solution with what one may call a simplified strategy of merely increasing the number of mandis and scheduling the entry of farmers to their respective mandis.
The swift acknowledgment from the senior administration proved a turning point for the speedy implementation of the new thought out process which brought a sigh of relief for the officers in the field.
So, a list of 300 centers for mustard and 2000 centers for wheat was drawn up which was a fourfold increase from the last year, when finally inspected and vetted by the local administration, zeroed into 281 and 1831 centers respectively. The rice mills and the village sports stadiums proved to be the best bet for the new mandis since they had concrete flooring and boundary walls. Tentative personnel deployment plan was charted, orders for a generous amount of face masks, hand sanitizers, and thermal scanners were placed, followed by the activation of the farmer helpline and simultaneous scheduling of market entry.
Deployment of round the clock duty of personnel was done to trigger the farmer helpline, popularly known as “Bees Saat”(2060), which immediately witnessed a rapid escalation with a single-day high of 1500 calls. The first twenty days noticed a turbulent but committed & well-trained helpline workforce of 90 responding to an anxious and agitated farmer population and attending to a total number of 28,505 calls. The frequent inquiries pertained to registration of farmlands, sale procedures of the produce; not to ignore the virtuous propositions of a few, and also some of them who simply needed to let out their wrath, primarily due to their incomprehension of the process. The helpline team’s work was truly commendable in terms of dedication & information dissemination.
Haryana had over the last three years built up a robust system of farmer registration on the “fasalhry.in” portal. The “meri fasal, mera byora” scheme, called out to the farmers of the state to have their lands registered under it along with a recording of crops sown, details of bank accounts, mobile numbers and information regarding the respective mandis. The early registration of around 12 lakh farmers in the portal immensely helped in strategizing, planning, and scheduling the arrival of the farmers to their respective mandis.
Haryana was already in the trial and testing phase of its online procurement portal “e-kharid.in” for quite some time now. But it took a Covid-19 to actually realize its potential and in turn make the optimum utilization of the same.
Nevertheless, the harmonious integration of farmer registration and procurement modules guaranteed advance preparation of various other important parameters like planning the arrival schedule of farmers, timely management of calls and SMS alerts, issuance of online gate passes on arrival, conducting auctions on a real time basis, timely payment in the farmers’ and commission agents’ bank accounts and timely lifting and storage of the grains in the warehouses.
Technology and mechanization always play a great role in facilitating complex processes in difficult circumstances such as this. But it can never satisfy all the participants in the same way. Changes made to the traditional system brought about an obvious resistance from the commission agents who went on strike, just a few days before the start of the procurement process, demanding an immediate closure of the newly implemented automation procedures and recalling the conventional system of manual operations. This was provoked by a fear that suddenly rose among them of losing their stronghold on the farmers. Technology posed a direct threat on their stand as commission agents in the procurement system. But a strong and determined political leaders who wanted to put an end to such age-old exploitation of the farmers used the opportunity rightly and brought the agitation under control and stuck to their resolution.
Finally, the procurement of mustard started on the 15th of April in 281 mandis across the state without any hindrances. 25 farmers reached at each of these mandis at the designated time and place without a hassle. As the photographs of the farmers standing in the mandis in an orderly manner, with their face masks on and their hands sanitized flooded the official social groups, a sigh of relief went across the administration who made it happen amidst the mayhem. A humble 15,000 tons of mustard was procured on the first day which subsequently increased over the next few days. The confidence and the experience gained in mustard gave us the strength to start the procurement of wheat on the 20th of April which saw the arrival of 1.5 lakh tons in 1205 active centers which also surged progressively.
At the time of publishing this article, the state has procured 6.25 lakh tons of mustard from 2.25 lakh farmers and has paid Rs.1240 crores directly into the bank account of the farmers. The wheat procurement figure stands at 65.66 lakh tons from 4.24 lakh farmers and a payment of Rs. 3923.20 crores.
It is normally during the elections that the entire state machinery gets stretched beyond its capacity but the procurement season of Rabi 2020 was no less than an election. Though the officialdom played a key role in ensuring a smooth procurement season, the real credit goes to the farmers of the state. Despite the anxiety and the uncertainty, the cooperation from the farmers was unprecedented and there was not a single incident wherein an unscheduled farmer had turned up at the mandi gate creating an unpleasant situation. The extensive use of the portal by the farmers for their multiple requirements was quite encouraging as it was a clear sign that the newly adopted process had an overwhelming response from them.
The strong-willed and clear-headed political leadership in the state ensured fast decision making. The chief minister Shri. Manohar Lal’s eye for detail and his patience to preside over long meetings meant that issues were sorted out the same day. The regular meetings ironed out differences amongst departments and laid the road map for the upcoming day.
Living our lives engaged in our daily chores, who would have thought that someday we might be imprisoned in our homes fearing the unknown, moreover fearing a fellow human being. The Covid-19 pandemic however brought forth the human qualities that had long been forgotten. Being a part of something that touches the lives of thousands has been a humbling experience and has brought the realization as the saying goes “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.