Paddy's poetic justice: Telangana may emerge as Centre's procurement lifeline for Rabi

Call it poetic justice or paddy justice, the Centre may well be landing itself in a situation where it cannot ignore Telangana in its procurement plans for the Rabi season

Paddys poetic justice: Telangana may emerge as Centre procurement lifeline for Rabi

HYDERABAD: Call it poetic justice or paddy justice, the Centre may well be landing itself in a tricky situation where it cannot continue to ignore Telangana and go past the state in its procurement plans for the coming Rabi (Yasangi) season.

This, a paradoxical scenario that the Centre would have hardly anticipated, comes on the back of a long, treacherous phase where procurement was stoically stonewalled. In fact, the phase was a sour mix of procrastination, irrational restrictions and bewildering U-turns, all adding to an already existing unpleasantness in relations.

A less-than-optimistic acreage this year and fast-plummeting reserves on hand could well play the crippling factors to force the NDA Government to reach out to the very state that it kept shunning remorselessly over the last several months.Now, Telangana sits pretty in the elite list of a very few states that grow paddy even during Rabi or, in local parlance, Yasangi season. Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are the only other states in the country that cultivate paddy during this season.

The Centre and Telangana are at loggerheads since the Kharif (Vanakalam) season this year due to an unwarranted standoff over the procurement of paddy (rice with husk) and rice variants.

The countrywide paddy cultivation during the Kharif season recorded a decline of 20 lakh hectares, which translates to 49 lakh acres, as against the numbers previous year. Last year, paddy was cultivated in 423 lakh hectares or 1,045 acres whereas this year, it barely reached 403 lakh hectares (995 lakh acres). The paddy yield and the extent of area have been affected this year due to the largely perceived late arrival of monsoon and an inconsistent rainfall.

The low acreage and fall in paddy cultivation are expected to severely impact rice production, with a likely shortfall of about 70 lakh tonnes, as against last year.

In 2021-22, the total rice production during Kharif was recorded at 11.2 crore tonnes and the same at the end of this year's season was estimated to be at 10.5 crore tonnes. Now, the question on everyone's lips is, will it be easy for the NDA regime to bite the bullet and do normal business with the state after its harsh, step-motherly treatment, constricting its foodgrain outflow!

Telangana, highest paddy producing state during Rabi (Vanakalam)

The inevitability of filling the shortfall to avoid rice scarcity in the country puts the Modi Government in a Catch-22 situation: It can neither rush to Telangana brushing aside all the recent hostile history nor overlook the rice-bowl state when transacting with the states that cultivate paddy even during the Rabi (Yasangi) season. Adding to this complexity for the Union Government is the fact that Telangana accounts for the highest acreage and paddy cultivation among all these states.

As per sources in the agriculture ministry, paddy was cultivated in about 34.21 lakh acres in Telangana during Rabi (Yasangi) in 2021-22. Incidentally, this acreage is the highest in comparison to Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Giving a shot in the arm, the figure this year can also go up by an additional five lakh acres in Telangana.

In the last one year or more, Telangana virtually had to wage twin battles in a tightrope walk of sorts; to carefully untangle every procedural knot thrown by the Centre and ensure that the farm produce did not go to waste and farmers did not bear the brunt of the hazy procurement curbs. That the paddy production has grown multifold in the state is an amazing story of resilience displayed by the State Government all through this phase, marked by obstacles and countless confusing U-turns from the Centre.

New granary of India

Derided by the Centre until not so long ago, Telangana is now fast-assuming the reputation as the 'granary of India.' And the proof of it lies in this piece of stats: In the current rabi or Yasangi season (2022-23), paddy was cultivated in close to 65 lakh acres in Telangana, leading to a staggering 1.41 crore tonnes of its production. Over 28 lakh tonnes of it was already procured until last weekend as part of the State Government's commitment to buy close to 90 lakh tonnes of paddy. While grappling with a nationwide shortfall in rice production, the Centre can only ill-afford to ignore the state that is in the forefront of paddy cultivation, even during Rabi (Yasangi).

But then, why should it be such a bitter pill to swallow for the Centre? Well, what should normally be construed as a common transactional business between the Centre and the States has only been complicated, thanks to the adamant and unusually tough posturing adopted by the Narendra Modi Government against Telangana since the Kharif time.

From the beginning, the TRS government has been demanding that the Centre procure paddy (rice with husk) from the State at minimum support price (MSP) to aid the farmers. However, the Centre, pursuing a hardened stand, kept maintaining that it could only procure raw rice and very less parboiled rice.

The confrontation flared up in summer last year over the purchase of parboiled rice from Telangana after the Centre-controlled Food Corporation of India (FCI) refused to take a part of the surplus quantity from the State. Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao was always critical of the FCI for adopting policies that would only leave the farmers and State governments in two minds on the cropping pattern plans.

A shrewd reader that he is, the Chief Minister was quick to sense that the fluidity of the FCI measures could cut both ways. In a nutshell, this will make life difficult for the State governments in chalking out ideal cropping pattern plans and convey them easily and succinctly to the farming community.

As soon as the heat and dust surrounding the issue settled down, there was fresh trouble brewing in the form of custom milling rice (CMR) which saw the State and the Centre getting into a tangle again. The Centre halting the CMR procurement from the state, hiding behind clauses that the Telangana government considers frivolous, became politically sensitive between the two sides.

Paddy war – A timeline

November 18, 2021: Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao sits on a dharna in Hyderabad resenting Centre's refusal to buy 5 lakh tonnes of paddy; moots 'One Nation, One Procurement Policy'.

December 22, 2021: Harish Rao demands apology from Union Minister Piyush Goyal for humiliating the Telangana delegation. Goyal reportedly asks the team if they had no other work than meeting him.

March 25, 2022: Union Minister Piyush Goyal kicks up another controversy, asking the Telangana government to get its people habituated to eating broken rice.

April 11, 2022: KCR takes his protest against Centre's paddy procurement policy to Delhi; stages a day-long dharna at Telangana Bhawan. Threatens to take his stir across the country.

April 12, 2022: Centre refuses to buy parboiled rice from Telangana, insists only on raw rice.

April 12, 2022: Disgusted, KCR decides to open paddy procurement centres in the State.

June 8, 2022: Food Corporation of India (FCI) halts rice procurement from Telangana.

September 21, 2022: Union Agriculture Ministry's first advance estimate on foodgrain production predicts a six percent or 6.77 million tonne fall in the country's rice production during the Kharif (Vanakalam) season of 2022-23 crop year.

All through this tussle, the TRS suspected that there was a tacit design behind the Centre's procrastination. The BJP, according to the TRS, was looking to push Telangana into a state of helplessness and then portray it before the public as its failure to protect the farmers' interest. Also, a sinister plot to gobble up all the credit by procuring food grains at the most opportune time and win the farmers' hearts.

Centre's advance estimate portends grim picture

But tables seemed to have completely turned with the advent of Kharif (Vanakalam) season and the Centre was in for a reality bite in the face of fast-depleting rice reserves. A discreet confession of its follies already appeared on the horizon when it acknowledged in September this year that India's rice production in the kharif season for the 2022-23 crop year (July-June) could see a six percent decline. It may hover around 104.99 million tonnes as against 111.76 MT in 2021-22, as revealed by the first advance estimate of foodgrain production by the agriculture ministry.

A week before that, the food ministry stated that rice production could go down by 6-10 metric tonnes in the 2022-23 crop year due to 4.5 percent fall in paddy sowing which, by then, was recorded at 39.9 million hectare in the kharif season when compared to the previous year.

By conventional wisdom, the Centre will be expected to put aside its ego and trade with Telangana to mitigate a looming food grain crisis in the country. But the FCI may also go full steam on its proposal to rope in private players for paddy procurement during this Kharif (Vanakalam) season. There are suggestions that this plan was designed for the Centre to mainly circumvent the awkwardness it has with Telangana and still manage to augment its reserves.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao is bitterly opposed to the involvement of private entities in paddy or foodgrain procurement. He feels that the farmers could be exploited and given a raw deal in fixing competitive rates for their produce. If the Centre prefers to bulldoze ahead with its plan, rest assured, this is likely to become yet another bone of contention between the two and trigger a fresh bout of confrontation.

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