The Centre and the Punjab Government are at loggerheads over implementing the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system for making payments directly to the farmers for their produce. The state fears that the switchover would herald the end of its time-tested arhtiya system and impact its agriculture-based economy. For decades, arhtiyas or commission agents have been helping farmers at every stage, right from the crop’s arrival in the mandi to its purchase by government or private agencies. These middlemen have also been lending money to them for buying inputs, albeit at stiff interest rates. Punjab has around 47,000 registered arhtiyas who make about Rs 1,500 crore annually as commission for their services, including passing on the payments to the farmers. Punjab is insisting on doing it the roundabout way.
The DBT system was launched by the Congress-led UPA in 2013 with the aim of ensuring accurate targeting of beneficiaries of welfare schemes, besides minimising duplication and curbing fraud. The NDA not only retained it but also expanded its ambit to initiate direct payment of the minimum support price (MSP) to farmers. The ultimate reform objective — transparency and accountability in the procurement process — has to be lauded.
Punjab and Haryana, which spearheaded the Green Revolution, have a robust and reliable procurement system that benefits farmers as well as arhtiyas. Such a framework is not in place in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where farmers are constrained to sell their harvest well below the MSP. These disparities embolden unscrupulous elements to make a killing by smuggling the crop from one state and selling it in another. Their estimated profit is a staggering Rs 700 crore for every 10 lakh tonnes of the crop sold. The DBT, if implemented in letter and spirit, can plug such loopholes and weed out fake beneficiaries. Considering the wide range of services provided by the arhtiyas, they are in no danger of becoming redundant even if the growers get direct payment. Political and electoral considerations should not be allowed to derail a reform measure that seeks to protect farmers and bring in greater transparency in procurement.
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