RAHIM YAR KHAN: The Punjab Food Department is intimidating small farmers to achieve its wheat procurement target in the district.
The department has procured 87,000 metric tons of wheat in pursuit of the target for this year -- 130,000 metric tons.
On increasing complaints from small farmers, the department on Tuesday night started a crackdown on flour mills and recovered more than 19,000 wheat bags.
The department will also raid different private seed companies to recover the wheat stored illegally or in excess of the permitted quantity. The food department is to procure wheat in Sadiqabad, Rahim Yar Khan and Liaqatpur tehsils, and Passco will buy the produce from Khanpur tehsil.
The food department started the wheat procurement by the end of March at its 21 centres with more than 45 food inspectors and other supporting staff and patwaris.
Small farmers, however, complain that the food department has hired more than 130 private “chowkidars” who are involved in the practice of confiscating wheat from them. These agents, along with a policeman, stop tractor-trolleys and rickshaws loaded with wheat bags which small farmers transport to their homes for their personal use. They initially force these farmers to shift the wheat bags to the official procurement centers, and on the farmers’ refusal, they demand Rs1,000 to Rs5,000 for a vehicle and then allow them to take the wheat to their homes.
A farmer of Chowk Suraile, Arshaad Ahmed, said that when he was transporting his 40 bags of wheat from his farms to home, two chowkidars with a policeman stopped their vehicle and told the driver to shift these bags to the Iqbalabad Food Centre.
When Arshaad arrived at the spot and inquired about their identity, they refused to introduce themselves and said the assistant commissioner had deployed them to check the wheat movement. Later, they demanded Rs10,000 to allow the trolley to proceed.
New Model Grain Market President Anwar Najmi told Dawn that the small farmers had been restricted from bringing their wheat to the grain market as the food department wanted to achieve the target first.
He said that there were 270 traders in the grain market, and all were asking him about how they would earn their bread and butter under such restrictions. He said that when farmers want to sell their product in the grain market due to attractive rates, the government creates hurdles. He suggested that if the trade of agricultural products is not allowed, the grain market should be permanently closed.
He alleged that before Eid, the food department took huge amounts from flour mills and permitted them to store wheat at night. The department will again mint money from flour mill owners through this practice, Najmi said.
On Wednesday, the district association of flour mill owners held an emergency meeting at the Rahim Yar Khan Chamber of Commerce and Industry to discuss the situation but did not release the details of its decisions.
District Food Controller Fazal Abbas said that his office superintendent, Muhammad Asif, will respond to allegations, targets, and raids on flour mills, including complaints from small farmers. Mr Asif, however, chose not to share the details despite repeated attempts to reach him.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2023