Space for the Poor: Restrictions Imposed on Marketing & Movement
of Agricultural Goods in India
60% of our workforce is still employed in agriculture, but its
contribution to our GDP is 26.8%. It provides for 20% of the country's
exports. 80% of farmers are small and marginal, and 75% of the poor
reside in rural areas. Probing into the plight of the poor farmers,
this paper examines the restrictions imposed on marketing and movement
of agricultural goods in India, and their associated fiscal and
efficiency costs on the economy.
Agricultural markets in India have been regulated since 1928 with
the inception of the "Royal Commission of Agriculture." Policy
intervention in agriculture was virtually absent till the Bengal
Famine of 1943, in which more than a million people died. The famine
provided a major impetus for formulation of a comprehensive food
policy in India. The Food Policy Committee which was set up after
the disaster, suggested an interventionist government policy in
the food grain market. Intervention began in the form of administrative
controls, monopoly procurement schemes and public distribution,
but it now encompasses a wide array of restrictive tools. This was
done on the premise that private trade would function efficiently
in normal periods but in periods of drought and crop failure, the
profit motive would lead them to hoard supplies and earn abnormal
profits. Ever since, the Indian government has followed a policy
of de-control and re-control of agricultural markets.
The Essential Commodities Act
In 1955, with the good intention of helping the poor, the Government
of India (GOI) promulgated the Essential Commodities Act (ECA) to
control and regulate production, manufacturing and distribution
of essential commodities in India. ECA is "An Act to provide
in the interest of the general public, for the control of the production,
supply and distribution of, and trade and commerce, in certain commodities".
In order to control the vagaries of the market, it gives the State
the power to control the tools of the market. The Act specifies
a list of essential commodities on which the government can from
time to time introduce control Orders in situations of short
supply. As of June 2001, there were 30 items in this list. Furthermore,
it is an enabling act allowing the state governments to frame rules
under this central act. The Act itself does not lay the rules and
regulations of the game but allows the states to issue orders in
case of malpractices like hoarding and black marketing. Since the
state authorities can invoke this act at any given time it provides
a potential threat to trade in agricultural commodities. Besides
being a potential threat there are inherent problems in terms of
implementation, and punishment (in case of failure to abide by the
Under the act, various orders with respect to foodgrains have been
made by the central and state governments. These orders broadly
Licensing of dealers/retailers for trade in food grains
Private traders are required to obtain a government permit to transport
grain out of a particular state or even district, but the criterion
varies from state to state. Permits are difficult to obtain when
the procurement by the FCI or state governments for the public distribution
system (PDS) and buffer stocks lags behind targets.
Restrictions on movement of foodgrains
Government authorities restrict interstate movement through notified
orders. These have been sporadically enforced in the recent years.
Since 1993, the central government has decided to treat the entire
country as a single food zone, but the states seem to be unaware
of this and restrict movement. The state wise position on restrictions
on movement of agricultural goods is given in Appendix-I.
Regulations of storage limits
While exercising the powers delegated by the central government
under the ECA, several states have also imposed limits on stocking
foodgrains and agricultural produce, which have been frequently
revised and sporadically enforced in recent years. They vary according
to the severity of supply shortfalls and price rises. The state
wise position is given in Appendix-II.
Control-quota regime (compulsory sale to the government)
Under the control-quota regime or the "levy-price" system,
private individuals are forced to sell a fixed quota of their produce
to the government (FCI and state government agencies) at the procurement
price or the minimum support price (MSP). Currently such a system
is in place for rice and sugar. In the case of sugar, the levy quota
stands at 15% from an earlier 30%, leaving the free sale quota to
be 85%. Private rice mills can be forced to sell anything between
7 to 75% of their produce.
These controls had little justification at times of severe food
shortage and scarcity. Not only has the country has attained overall
self-sufficiency in most commodities, but it also surpluses in foodgrains
and other primary commodities. Thus the restrictions have only hampered
private productive activities and acted as disincentives to production
and distribution of agricultural commodities. A case in point is
the free movement of foodgrains, which takes place from surplus
areas to deficit areas like the Northeast. In the process, it stabilizes
prices by reducing the prices in deficit areas and raising prices
in surplus areas.
Though the Act was introduced with the good intention of protecting
the poor from the vagaries of the market, it has over the years
been transformed into an effective harassment tool in the hands
of the state. Mitra and Dasgupta (1998), view the reason to be sheer
shortsightedness and ignorance on part of policy makers who have
never seemed to realize the importance and potential of the vital
sector. A majority of farmers have to operate under severe restrictions
and regulatory measures.
From bad to worse?
Following the severe droughts of 1980 and 1981, poor agricultural
production, and the rampant practice of hoarding and black marketing
of daily necessities, the brutal Essential Commodities Act was amended
to the draconian Essential Commodities (Special Provisions) Act.
The preamble of the Act states: "An act to make certain
special provisions by way of amendments to the ECA, (1955) for a
temporary period for dealing more effectively with persons indulging
in hoarding & black marketing of, and proliferating in, essential
commodities & with the evil of vicious inflationary prices for
matters connected therewith or incidental thereto." The
government had initially introduced the Act for a period of 5 years,
as it was in agreement that such legislation would not be required
permanently. However, the Act has been extended 4 times and each
time by 5 years, since its inception.
In order to deal more effectively with persons indulging in malpractice,
steps were taken on two accounts; a) Harsher punishments and b)
Immense power in the hands of implementing authorities. All offences,
even minor technical discrepancies, would now result in non-bailable
imprisonment and/or fine. Not only were they earlier cognizable,
but even the power to grant reduced penalties for adequate and
special reasons were also withdrawn.
What made the situation worse was the grant of immense power in
the hands of the implementing authorities, which could even be at
the level of a constable in the local police station. Mitra and
Dasgupta point out "The Act also empowers authorities to search
the premises and arrest as well as seize / confiscate and sell the
stock under dispute on mere suspicion and even before the guilt
is established. It is against the common principles of jurisprudence
to impose three penalties simultaneously, namely arrest, seizure
or confiscation, and sale of the entire stock." The result
is obvious: corrupt practices and misuse of granted powers. The
magnitude of this can be gauged by the fact that in 1995, against
80,927 raids only 2,719 persons were convicted (3.36%)and during
1996, 45,500 raids resulted in 2,177 convictions (4.78%) . The rest
had to undergo unnecessary humiliation and harassment. Moreover
the Act does not allow variations in stocks due to climatic conditions
and loss in transit. With such stringent laws and regulations, it
violates the most basic rules of jurisprudence.
This setup has resulted in a harsher regime of agricultural controls,
where penalties have become more important than the initial objective
of smooth distribution of essential commodities. In the light of
these facts, one needs to ask, does the Act benefit the poor? If
not then, what purpose does it serve? If its only purpose is as
a regulatory tool in the hands of the government to harass farmers
and traders, then why not abolish the Essential Commodities Act?
Prevention of Black Marketing and Maintenance of Supplies Act,
To make matters worse, in 1980 came the "Prevention of
Black Marketing and Maintenance of Supplies Act." It is
an "Act for detention in certain cases or the purpose of
prevention of black marketing and maintenance of supplies of commodities
essential to the community and for matters concerned therewith".
The enactment of this Act led to a duplication of the Essential
Commodities (Special Provision) Act, 1981. Why do law enforcers
have two laws for prevention of malpractices like black marketing
and hoarding? Parth J Shah, President, Centre for Civil Society,
explains this morass of controls by the "Potato Chip Theory
of Regulation": One restriction creates situation that demands
further restrictions, which in turn require more restrictions. Once
a bag of potato chips is opened, it’s hard to stop at one or a few
chips. So while enjoying the chips, lawmakers seldom realise the
negative impact it has on the poor farmers. Thus the Act merely
acts as another restrictive weapon against the unarmed agricultural
Informal controls are a major obstacle in free movement of agricultural
goods between states. Largely State implemented and enforced to
help implement the orders issued as per the ECA, they come down
harshly on the farmers and traders in the form of harassment by
the local authorities. A common practice followed by the local officials
at state borders is, to stop and check trucks carrying goods. Though
on the excuse of a routine check, trucks normally get held up for
days on end. This results in unnecessary harassment and imposes
a heavy price on private traders, in the form of lost time and the
bribes paid. Let’s take the example of wheat in the surplus areas
of Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh. Here informal restrictions
have been imposed so that the Government can procure wheat for PDS
and buffer stocking at the official procurement price. Farmers lose
the right to sell their produce to anyone offering better prices—making
the government restriction akin to extortion.
Informal restrictions on movement or on participation of private
traders cause corruption within states and at state borders, in
turn, forcing farmers to switch to other crops that are free from
such controls. Therefore, even if orders are lifted on paper, steps
need to be taken to remove such superfluous controls.
Food police of India
The Food Corporation of India was set up in 1965 under the Food
Corporations Act, 1964, as a government owned nodal agency. Its
function was to give the public sector a secure and commanding position
in the foodgrain trade, thus acting as a countervailing force to
the speculative activities of the private traders. As per the Act,
FCI is responsible for functions of procurement, storage, and distribution.
As the principal executor of government policies, FCI fulfils the
following objectives of the Food policy:
- Effective price support operations for safeguarding the interests
of the farmers.
- Distribution of foodgrains throughout the country for Public
Distribution System; and
- Maintaining satisfactory level of operational and buffer stocks
of foodgrains to ensure National Food Security.
Through procurement operations, FCI implements its price support
programs. Procurement or purchases by FCI agents takes place in
Mandis (state operated and regulated wholesale markets) and
other buying centres. Except under a levy system, farmers may sell
voluntarily to the FCI at pre-announced "uniform" procurement
prices or the minimum support price (MSP). MSP, announced before
the sowing season, is the price at which the government would step
in and buy any amount of stocks off farmers, in case open market
prices fall below this floor. The idea is to provide price support
to farmers in times of a glut. Procurement price, announced before
the harvest season, is the price at which the government procures
stocks of its own volition. The distinction between the two is important
as procurement price is only issued in times of distress or bad
harvests. Obviously, procurement price is higher than MSP by a bonus,
which serves as an incentive to the farmers to sell to the government.
Due to increasing political pressure, in 1992 the two were merged
together, thus starting a trend of an ever-rising MSP.
The government, on the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural
Costs and Prices (CACP) fixes the MSP. Started in 1965, CACP is
a statutory body under the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). Ms Kevileno
Angami, Deputy Director of CACP told us that the Commission had
recommended a freeze on the MSP by fixing a ceiling on its increase.
But the government is not legally bound to accept the recommendations
of the CACP.
Whether the MSP is above or below the market price is irrelevant.
The crux of the issue is that the government price support operations,
with its depressing effects on food grain prices benefit only a
small portion of farmers and distort resource allocation. And even
if the market "fails" to provide remunerative prices to
the poor, at best a subsidy in the form of cash grants could be
given to the farmers, in turn, also reducing the fiscal constraint
of an ever-rising MSP on the exchequer. For agriculture to ever
become a commercially viable option, the government should do away
with its paternalistic attitude towards agriculture, both in its
protective and restrictive roles.
Do we need a food police?
Whether the FCI is needed or not can be answered by its negative
impact on the economy through: (a) Mounting cost of FCI operations
and (b) Stunting efficient private market operations. FCI burdens
taxpayers with rising fiscal costs, which can be attributed to both
pricing policy of the government and technical and operational inefficiencies.
Food subsidy, the operational deficit of the FCI has alone accounted
for over 7% of the country's fiscal deficit in 10 out of 12 years
between 1987- 88 and 1998- 99. FCI has overgrown in every aspect
of its operations. It employs 65,000 employees and over 170,000
direct contract labourers, and it manages 1,146 storage depot centres.
Procurement trebled from 7-8 million tonnes in 1970s to 20-25 million
tonnes during the mid-1990s, but as the scale of operations expanded
so did the operation costs. Due to government's wrong policies,
stocks with the central pool were 44.7 million tones (April 2001-02),
which are nearly triple the stipulated 15.8 million tones. The FCI
does not fall behind even in terms of storage inefficiencies, 50%
of foodgrain stocks are at least 2 years old, 30%, between 2 to
4 years old; and some grain as old as 16 years old. To add to this
is the cost of management, estimated at 30% of the entire operational
cost of the FCI. These facts merely form the tip of the iceberg
in narrating the uneconomical saga of the FCI.
To support the costly operations of the FCI, Central and State
level regulations restrict private buying and selling. Moreover,
FCI's operations (procurement, distribution and buffer stocking)
have repressed private foodgrain marketing, hindering their potential
contribution to long-term food security. A major stumbling block
is the Open Market Sales (OMS) or commodity dumping operations of
the FCI. It sells or buys foodgrains in the open market, to accordingly
depreciate or appreciate the prices prevailing in the market. This
undercuts trade of the market open to private activity. Such sales
by the FCI can be sizable. From 1990-91 to 1995-96, its cereal open
market sales ranged from 50,000 tonnes to 6 million tonnes. So,
in the name of food security FCI has stunted efficient private market
Ken Schoolland writes in The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible:
A Free Market Odyssey:
The woman gritted her teeth, fighting to hold back tears. Then
she said scornfully, "His crime was—well, he was producing
too much food!"
Jonathan was shocked. The island was truly a strange place! "It's
a crime to produce too much food?"
The woman continued, "Last year, the Food Police issued orders
telling him how much food he could produce and sell to the country
folk. They told us that low prices hurt other farmers." She
bit her lip slightly, and then blurted out, "My husband was
a better farmer than all the rest of them put together!
Low prices might hurt the farmers, but don’t high prices hurt consumers?
Aren’t farmers consumers too? An attempt to satisfy all would simply
lead to an economic collapse. At the same time, the nation cannot
achieve national food security at the cost of denying opportunity
to farmers to operate freely. Contrary to what it is doing, the
government should give incentives to the private sector and the
civil society in providing national food security.
Hedging risk—agriculture futures markets
Futures contracts are standardised forward contracts that
are tradable, and Futures markets, where trading of these
contracts takes place. Futures contracts represent an obligation
to make or take delivery of a fixed quantity and quality of a commodity,
at a specific location and date. In contrast forward contracts
are not standardised and are non-tradable. A futures market is an
organised place, providing the facilities for futures trade; either
via an "open outcry" exchange or an electronic market.
Futures and forwards contracts face a general ban with the only
exceptions being six minor agricultural commodities (raw jute and
jute goods, black pepper, castor seed, jaggary, potatoes, and turmeric)
traded at twenty-six recognised commodity exchanges. Forward trading
is allowed only in cotton lint, jute goods, raw jute, and hessian.
Doubtful as it may seem today, India has had a long and well-established
history of commodity futures markets dating as back as 1921. Futures
contracts are governed under the Forward Contracts (Regulation)
Act, 1952, which provides the government a three-tier framework
for regulating futures trading activities. The Forward Markets Commission
(FMC), a statutory body under the administrative control of Ministry
of Civil Supplies and Public Distribution, monitors futures markets
and controls the operations of the recognised commodity exchanges,
which, in turn, organises futures trading in selected agricultural
commodities as per its trading by-laws.
The usefulness of Indian futures markets is severely repressed
by the selective and restrictive implementation of the regulatory
framework. Both GoI and FMC, by intervening extensively or selectively,
restrict access to futures markets. The limits imposed by the FC(R)
Act on contract specifications such as transferability, have become
so stringent that they make futures trading an unattractive operation.
Economic benefits from using Futures Markets
The two main economic roles of future markets are: (a) Hedging
price risk and (b) As a price discovery mechanism. Though supply
of primary agricultural commodities is concentrated at the time
of harvest, its demand is perennial. To bridge the gap between supply
and consumption, efficient storage is required. Stockists not only
freeze up working capital but also face downside price risks. Futures
trading allows stockists to hedge against price risks; it reduces
the risk premium added to storage margins.
At the time of planting or sowing, farmers are unaware of prices
that would prevail at the time of harvest. By providing a mechanism
for the discovery of prices in the future, futures markets facilitate
production, processing, storage and marketing decisions. It helps
farmers, traders, processors, and exporters by improving price discovery
in their forward planning decisions. With more competition due to
opening up of world agricultural markets, such mechanisms would
become more important. Futures markets also promote inter-seasonal
and intra-seasonal price stability.
Opportunities and options for futures markets
Economic advantages of futures markets are reduced by government
interventions on physical commodity markets. The specific and ad-hoc
controls on storage, movement, and access to trade credit severely
hamper the benefit by preventing the arbitrage of agricultural commodities
across space and seasons in an efficient and competitive fashion.
A comparison with American and European agricultural policies clearly
shows the potential and the limits that government interventions
impose on the performance of futures markets, and the latter's contribution
to a strategy for risk management in agriculture. This not only
strengthens the case against policy intervention by the GoI, but
it also tells us the government should take drastic steps to improve
the working of Indian Futures Markets. The Kabra Committee (1994),
formed to review futures trading in India, recommends the introduction
of futures markets for more agricultural commodities. The government
should remove the general ban on trading and barriers set up impeding
the working of Indian futures markets.
From the horses mouth
After half a century of government initiatives agriculture is still
not commercially viable. According to the Prime Minister’s Advisory
Council on Agriculture:
There is a large amount of domestic market distortion which has
a negative effect on agricultural producers and which should be
eliminated. In our view, if we move away from control and towards
freer markets in agricultural products it will provide agricultural
producers with an environment and entrepreneurial dynamism.
The government has initiated a piecemeal reform process but actions
speak louder than words. In March 1993, the central government announced
its policy to treat the entire country as a single food zone. Following
that the Chief Minister's Conference held on November 27, 1998 looked
into the matter in detail. It was promised that immediate action
would be taken to remove restrictions, including informal restrictions,
if any, on the movement of essential commodities so that the free
flow of essential commodities would be ensured. Although the government
had realized that the removal of restrictions is an important pre-requisite
for ensuring the economic unity, stability and prosperity of a country
having a two-tier polity, a change at the grassroots is yet to be
seen. The speeches have yet to turn into results.
Epilogue–-Don’t tread on me!
In the words of Chief Vigilance Commissioner, N Vittal, "One cannot
get out of the present deadlock in our food management scene unless
we take imaginative action. Can the problem we face in food management
today be converted into an opportunity for a better system of food
management for the future?" Yes, we can. The imaginative but do-able
action should be a 3-pronged agenda:
- Movement of goods should be freed from formal and informal controls.
- Farmers should be allowed to take part in the market.
- Government should channelise investment into marketing infrastructure
State-wise position on restrictions imposed by
State Governments/Union Territories on movement of food and agricultural
A.P paddy (Restriction on movement), 1987:
According to this order no person shall attempt to move or
abet the movement of paddy from any place in the state to
any place outside the state except under a permit issued by
the State government or an authorised officer. The order gives
the implementing authority the power to enter, search and
seize. However, the order has been kept in abeyance from July
Periodic movement controls on groundnut and
Jammu & Kashmir
Ban on movement outside the state of foodgrains
(except Basmati rice), pulses, singharas, oil seeds, cheese
& butter and vegetables of all kinds.
M.P Rice Procurement (Levy) Order, 1970:
It imposes restriction for rice milled in the state, by forcing
the millers to give a prescribed percentage of their production
in levy to the State government. For rest quantity they have
to obtain release order and transit permit from the concerned
district collector for movement to other districts or states.
Maharashtra Raw Cotton (Procurement, Processing,
marketing) Act, 1971: Since 1972-73, Maharashtra State Cotton
Marketing Federation has been making compulsory procurement
of cotton with a ban on movement of cotton produce in and
out of state, on the basis of guaranteed minimum price. (Since
Maharashtra is the largest producer of cotton in the country,
the State Monopoly Procurement Scheme causes distortion in
trade and pricing. This often leads to smuggling of cotton
between Maharashtra and adjoining states as prices go above
or below the federation's buying prices.)
Restriction on movement of rice and paddy
from one district to another within the state. The producers/cultivators
can move their surplus stocks of paddy outside the state with
permission of concerned sub-collectors.
Restriction imposed on of paddy/rice out
of the state, which is conditional to 100% levy.
U.P Rice and Paddy (Levy &
Regulation on trade) Order, 1985: This applies to the whole
of U.P, including the border areas. As per this Order, every
licensed miller shall sell and deliver to the government,
at the notified price, 60% of each variety of rice. The movement
or sale of rice can be done only after obtaining a release
certificate from the Centre In-charge/Senior Marketing Inspector/Marketing
Inspector (after having to sold to the State government as
per the levy).
West Bengal Rationing Order, 1964: It
delineates 'Rationed areas', which is an area where a rationed
article is sold. The movement of foodgrains in these areas
is restricted to those appointed by the State authorities.
Control Orders issued in respect of wheat,
rice, pulses and sugar but these do not provide for any restriction
Pondicherry Paddy and Rice Procurement
(Levy) Order, 1996: According to this, every trader who wishes
to transport paddy/rice outside the state shall have to obtain
a permit and measure transport levy at 20% of the quantity
transported. The traders are also to pay 10% as purchase levy
to the government.
State-wise position on restrictions imposed by
State Governments/Union Territories on storage of food and agricultural
A.P Rice & Paddy (Storage Control)
Order, 1981: It imposes restrictions on stock limits of rice
and paddy. But has been kept in abeyance from December 15,
2000. Stock limits on wheat have also been removed as per
the instructions issued by GoI.
Stocking of food and agricultural produce
is regulated through: Assam Trade Articles (Licensing and
Control) Order, 1982; Assam Public Distribution of Articles
Order, 1982 and Assam Rice and Paddy Procurement Order, 1955.
Stock limits on food and agricultural produce
have been imposed with prior concurrence of the Central Government.
Gujarat Essential Articles (Licensing,
Control and Stock Declaration) Order, 1981: Stock limits imposed
on edible oil and oilseeds, vide notification dates: August
14, 1998 and July 26, 2000.
H.P Trade Articles (Licensing and Control)
Order, 1981: Traders possessing foodgrains and other food
articles more than the specified limits are required to obtain
Karnataka Essential Commodities (Licensing)
Order, 1999: Stock limits imposed on wholesalers, dealers,
commission agents and retailers in respect of gur and edible
M.P Scheduled Commodities Dealers (Licensing
and Restriction on Hoarding) Order, 1991: Under which
Stock limits imposed on wheat for flourmills.
Pulses, Edible Oilseeds and Edible Oils (Storage Control)
Order, 1977: Under which stock limits imposed on pulses.
Maharashtra Scheduled Commodities
Wholesale Dealers Licensing Order, 1998: Stock limits have
been fixed on gur.
Meghalaya Foodgrain (Rice) Licensing and
Control Order, 1985; Meghalaya Pulses, Edible Oil seeds and
Edible Oils (Licensing and Control Order), 1979 and Meghalaya
Sugar Dealers Licensing Order, 1973 have been issued to regulate
purchase, storage and sale of essential commodities.
Orissa Rice and Paddy Control Order 1965:
It authorises the State Government to issue any direction
to a license with regard to purchase, sale or storage for
sale in wholesale quantity of rice and paddy.
Orissa Wheat and Wheat Products Control Order, 1988: It
authorises the State Government to fix up the maximum limit
of storage of wheat or wheat products or both taken together
on wholesaler or producer.
The State government has not put these in action, but
still remains a potential threat.
Punjab Trade Articles (Licensing and Control)
Order, 1992: A license has to be obtained by the dealers before
carrying on business in the commodities specified in the Schedule-III
of the Order. Stocking of more than specified limit of wheat,
paddy and its products requires a license.
Central Pulses, Edible Oilseeds and Edible
Oils (Storage and Control Order, 1977: Stock limits imposed
Rice and Wheat (Storage) Control Order,
1992: Stock limits imposed on rice and wheat.
Tamil Nadu Essential Trade Articles (Regulation
of Trade) Order, 1984: Stock limits fixed paddy/rice, sugar
Stock limits fixed on edible oilseeds, pulses
and edible oils (including hydrogenated Vanaspati).
Delhi Pulses (Licensing of Dealers) Order,
1974: Stock limits imposed on pulses.
Chandigarh Food Articles (Licensing and
Control) Order: Stock limits imposed for wheat, rice and pulses.
Pondicherry Essential Trade Articles (Regulation
of Trade) Order 1989: Stock limits fixed on rice.
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