The district’s bumper boro crop has dubbed Naogaon as the ‘rice capital’ of the country. As these correspondents proceeded towards Naogaon from the Bogura railway station, the air was filled with the smell of the freshly harvested crops.
Rice mills lines both sides of the road. But the young driver of the local vehicle in which we were travelled was least impressed.
“There’s no use it staring at all this,” he said. “Normally the entire Naogaon is jubilant during the harvest, but this time it’s in a slumber. When will the price of paddy increase?”
With paddy prices at a low, how are the farmers faring? How are the rice mill owners and the traders? Speaking on Wednesday to the relevant government agency, the farmers, and the traders in Naogaon, it was evident that 90 per cent of the farmers were not benefiting from the government drive to procure paddy and rice.
Within around 15 minutes of reach Naogaon town, it was evident that it was the import of rice that had hit the farmers’ bumper crop hard.
Around 5km down the road from the circuit house, a closed down rice mill caught the eye. In front it, a family was threshing the harvested paddy. The farmer Abdul Jabbar was toiling away with his wife Jamila, son-in-law Delwar, and the grandchildren.
They would have to pay a worker a daily wage of 700 taka for job, something Jabbar could hardly afford as he only receives 500 taka for a maund of rice which it took him 700 taka to grow.
Jabbar’s wife pulled her husband’s shirt off his back, “Look at the blisters. At this age he is having to cut and carry the crops himself.”
Jabbar lamented, “Normally with the new harvest, we invite our son-in-law over and make all sorts of delicious dishes. But this time we have brought them over to thresh the paddy. Eid is almost here but we can’t even imagine buying them new clothes. Managing meagre meals is a struggle.”
Further down the road, the hundreds of rice mills were mostly all closed. The boro crop has been harvested and the farmers are going from market to market in a desperate bid to sell their crop, but in vain.
The prices are not going above 600 taka a maund. Last year a maund so for 800 to 1000 taka, but this time the rice mill owners and the traders are not buying the paddy.
A lone mill among hundreds was open at Hapania in Naogaon sadar. The owner has leased it out to a local rice trader Motahar Hossain. About benefitting from the low prices, Motahar Hossain said, “The prices may be low, but what is the use if it is not sold? I took a 5 million taka loan from the bank and brought paddy during the aman crop, but I still have 70 per cent of that grain unsold. How will I buy the boro crop? In the mean time I have to pay interest on the loan.”
Why is the paddy not being sold? At the Tetulia marketplace, around 15 km further, rice trader Hasan Ali was buying paddy from the farmers at 600 to 620 taka per maund for the medium grade jirashail rice and 500 taka per maund of coarse grained rice. He said last year this paddy sold at 800 to 900 taka.
He was confronted with the question of profit. He will sell the rice to the government godowns at a high price, so he must be have a good profit margin.
This statement agitated him and the other trader standing by his side. “The government won’t buy more than one tonne from one person,” he said, “and do you know how much we have to pay just to get on the government procurement list?”
It was clear that corruption and irregularities was involved in the food department’s food grain procurement drive.
In the meantime, it had been week since GM Faruk Hossain Patwary had been transferred from Tangail to Naogaon as food controller. He was sitting in his office with the upazila food controllers. Also there was an officer of a state intelligence agency. Food department persons were briefing the district food controller about the rice procurement drive.
The district food controller said that this year there was an allocation to procure 72,096 tonnes of rice from the district. So far 5,632 tonnes has been procured and they had signed agreements with 1029 rice mills. They would also procure 5,586 tonnes of paddy. As per government rules, they were to procure 3 tonnes from each farmer, but in order to procure from more farmers, they would be buying one tonne per farmer this time.
In order to verify the food controller’s statement, a visit to the government food grain warehouses was made. Paddy was being brought in small vans and other local vehicles by the farmers to be stocked in one of the warehouses.
One of the farmers was drying out his paddy under the sun in front of the warehouse. The warehouse people explained that the paddy was still damp and would rot if stored in that condition yet the farmer couldn’t afford to transport the grain back. That was why he was drying it out, in order to sell as much as he could salvage.
Another farmer there, Ainul Huq, said he had grown 230 tonnes of rice in his fields yet the government was only buying one tonne from him at the rate of 1,040 taka. He was having to sell the remaining grain for just 400 to 500 taka per maund. He said the government procurement made no difference to them at all.
Food minister Sadhan Chandra Das told Prothom Alo, “We want to buy more paddy directly from the farmers, but in accordance to the decision of the national committee for food procurement, 150,000 tonnes will be purchased. I cannot overturn the decision on my own. But we will cancel our agreements with the rice mills which cannot provide the specific volume of rice. We will ask them buy that amount of paddy directly from the farmers. We are constructing warehouses around the country to store 1 million tonnes of rice.”
General secretary of the rice mill owners group in Naogaon, Farhad Hossain Chakdar, blamed rice import on the falling paddy prices.
He was annoyed that they couldn’t avail bank loans to procure paddy, yet the importers were being given loans easily.
He said, “We will have to leave the rice trade and turn to selling fruit instead. How will the government feed the people three square meals a day if they put the famers and the rice mill owners into this predicament?”
*The report, appeared in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir