Flour mills across the country have reduced their operating capacities to an average 25 per cent due to unavailability of wheat, workers and packaging materials following the 21-day nationwide lockdown introduced to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
India has some 2,500 units with an annual wheat processing capacity of about 25 million tonnes for producing flour, semolina (sooji) and refined flour (maida). Contributing nearly half by number, small wheat processing mills have been forced shut due to the blockage of working capital by biscuit, bread and pav (double bread) manufacturers.
During this lockdown, all such bakery units, which are primarily from the unorganised sector and cottage industry, have shut shop to prevent public gathering and maintain social distancing. Capacity reduction in wheat processing is set to hit the supply of flour, sooji and maida in the near future, and consumers may have to pay much more to buy them.
“Procurement of wheat has become a big problem due to closure of several mandis. Also, the movement of trucks is restricted for fear of police harassment. This, despite the government’s assurance on allowing inter-state movement of trucks. Also, packaging material and labour remain scarce. We are operating at just 25 per cent capacity which is the case with most small and mid-sized flour mills across the country,” said D Manikchand, Panchaganga Roller Flour Mills, a Shirgon (Maharashtra) based wheat processing mill.
Plastic being categorised as a non-essential commodity, factories manufacturing the item remained shut, impacting the availability of plastic packaging materials.
“Since edible items like flour, sooji and maida cannot be sold loose, unavailability of packaging materials and lack of any alternative means of packing have curbed production,” said Manikchand.
Besides, reverse migration of labour ahead of the 21-day lockdown introduced on March 25, has created huge shortage of workforce across all manufacturing sectors and flour mills are no exception.
Worsening the situation further, the Union Home Ministry on April 7 wrote to the secretary in the Ministry of Food invoking Essential Commodity Act across the country. This would essentially empower local authorities to invoke stock limits on any commodity and inspect factories and godowns at any given time. Violating stock limits would attract seven years in jail. The government of Rajasthan has already implemented the Act.
“We have recommended to the government to allow the sale of wheat directly to flour mills. Also, with a bumper wheat output estimated at 100 million tonnes, government agencies are struggling to create storage. So instead of allowing procured wheat to rot, it would better if the flour mills store it for processing,” said Sanjay Puri, President, Roller Flour Millers Federation of India (RFMFI).
India is also an exporter of wheat. As of March 2020, over 27.5 million tonnes of wheat inventory is lying in various godowns of the government-owned Food Corporation of India (FCI). That is nearly 15 per cent higher than the 23.9 million tonnes reported in the same month last year.
Meanwhile, Vijay Sardana, an expert in farm commodities, emphasised the need for an immediate amendment in the model APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) Act to make it trader friendly.