HYDERABAD: After having delayed opening of wheat purchase centres and allowing famers to sell their produce in open market, Sindh food department is now struggling to meet procurement target of 1.4 million tonnes and is pinning hopes on belated harvest of wheat in upper Sindh to achieve the target.

“Waiving of mandatory condition of form-VII (a revenue land document) itself shows that the department is finding it hard to meet the target, otherwise the department always presses for this prerequisite,” said Mehmood Nawaz Shah, vice president of Sindh Abadgar Board.

He questions logic of unnecessary delay in procurement of wheat every year and asks “what prevents food department from starting timely procurement?” and said everyone knows wheat harvest starts by end of February and by March large quantity of wheat is sold in market.

According to a report, 73,345.500 tonnes of wheat was procured until April 14, which was just 5.24pc of the 1.4m tonnes procurement target and until April 16, 120,000 tonnes wheat (8.57pc of target) was procured. The procurement drive is likely to continue till end of May.

Sindh food secretary Haleem Sheikh blames slow pace of procurement on belated approval of commodity credit limit (CCL) of Rs152bn by federal government out of which the food department is to spend Rs70bn on this year’s procurement of wheat.

In Hyderabad, wheat was being sold at Rs2,020 per 40kg in open market which was Rs20 up from Sindh government’s support price of Rs2,000 per 40kg (Rs5,000 per 100kg bag).

A trader who wished not be named said that wheat had been hoarded by some market players who were releasing it slowly in the market. “The department is said to have provided gunny bags to selected people, mostly influential, who will then be selling wheat to the government at Rs2,000 per 40kg support price,” he commented.

Some reports indicate that food department will procure wheat through middlemen from Punjab where harvest has just started and the crop size is also relatively big.

But Mr Sheikh rejected such reports and expressed optimism that the department would be able to meet the procurement target because upper Sindh region was still gearing up for the harvest.

He denied that the food department was having carryover stocks of past year and said there was only damaged wheat available in godowns. Release of wheat from godowns to mills and chakki owners would start from October as per practice, he said.

“Our procurement drive will continue till May 31 and hopefully the target will be achieved. The procurement has indeed been delayed due to belated approval of CCL by the federal government,” said the secretary.

He informed that gunny bags were to be procured for Rs2bn and 80pc of them had been bought while the remaining 20pc would be available soon with the department. “We had applied for raise in our CCL on Feb 16, but the request was approved only in late March which affected the procurement operation,” he said.

This year, it was learnt, the number of wheat procurement centres had been increased. Some officials were, however, facing probes by National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Sukkur region, therefore, staff could not be posted at the purchase centres.

Secondly, the food department waived mandatory condition of form-VII which a farmer had to produce to obtain gunny bags in order to sell his harvest to the food department. “We had to do away with the condition of form-VII as it had been cumbersome for farmers,” said the secretary.

The condition of form-VII was waived last year as well but did not help much in achieving the procurement target. The document proves a farmer’s ownership of farmland, big or small, to be able to get support price after selling his grain to the government. Sindh is likely to produce close to four million tonnes of the grain in 2020-21 of which the food department has to procure 1.4m tonnes wheat.

Early harvest and delayed procurement

Entire lower Sindh region has early harvest trend and crop starts arriving in market as early as end of February in Mirpurkhas region. Farmers prefer early sowing of cotton crop there due to availability of irrigation water in canals towards the fag end of Rabi season. This year’s sugar-cane harvest also started early and farmlands were freed of wheat crop so that soil could be prepared for summer crops.

“Usually, Mirpurkhas region produces early wheat crop and harvest begins in this area as early as February,” said a former Sindh food department director.

He said that harvest in Mirpurkhas was followed by Benazirabad region where the crop was harvested in March.

Against Sindh’s support price of Rs2,000 per 40kg, the federal government had fixed a rate of Rs1,800 per 40kg for Punjab and two other provinces. Punjab produces major chunk of Pakistan’s total wheat (25m tonnes) in which Punjab’s share is around 20m tonnes. Even in upper Sindh wheat has been mostly sold in open market by farmers.

According to Khalid Khan Khoso, a SAB representative in Qambar-Shahdadkot district, the purchase centres have been opened but larger chunk of wheat has already been sold by growers in open market. “The food department always delays opening of food centres,” probably to allow the grain’s sale in open market at lower price, he said.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021

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