Covid-19 Lockdown: Flour mills run at 25% capacity on wheat, labour paucity

Topics Coronavirus | Maharashtra | Lockdown

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). | Photo: Shutterstock
Flour mills across the country have reduced their operating capacity to an average 25 per cent due to unavailability of wheat, workers and packaging materials. This follows the 21-day nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19).

Spread across 2,500 small, medium and large units, India has around 25 million tonnes of installed wheat processing capacity annually for producing flour, sooji and maida.
Small wheat processing units, which comprise 50 per cent of the total number of mills, are shut due to blockage of working capital by consumers like biscuit, bread and pav manufacturers.

During the lockdown, all such units, primarily from the unorganised sector and cottage industries, have shut shop to prevent public gathering and maintain social distancing.

Thus, the capacity reduction in wheat processing is set to hit the supply of flour, sooji and maida in the near future. Consumers may have to pay premiums to secure their supply.
“Procurement of wheat has become a big problem due to closure of several mandis. Also, the movement of trucks has been restricted despite the government’s assurance to allow inter-state movement amid fear of police harassment. Also, availability of packaging material and labour remained scarce. We are operating with just 25 per cent capacity which is the case with most small and mid-sized flour mills across the country,” said D Manikchand of Panchaganga Roller Flour Mills, a Shirgon (Maharashtra)-based wheat processing mill.

“Since edible items like flour, sooji and maida cannot be sold lose, the unavailability of packaging materials and the lack of any alternative means of packing has curbed production,” said Manikchand.

Apart from that, reverse migration of workers ahead of the 21-day nationwide lockdown effected from March 25 has created a huge shortage of workforce across the manufacturing sector and flour mills are bearing the brunt.

The Union home ministry, on April 7, issued a letter to secretary in the ministry of food, invoking the Essential Commodity Act across the country. This would essentially empower local authorities to invoke the stock limit on any commodity and inspect factories and godowns at any given time. Violating the stock limit guidelines would attract seven years of imprisonment. The government of Rajasthan has already implemented the Act.

“We have recommended to the government to allow sale of wheat directly to consumers like flour mills. Also, with a bumper, wheat output is estimated at 100 million tonnes and government agencies are struggling to create storage to handle it. Therefore, instead of allowing procured wheat temporarily to be stored in shallows for rotting, it would be better that 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). This stands at nearly 15 per cent higher than the 23.9 million tonnes reported in the same month last year.

Meanwhile, Vijay Sardana, an expert in agri commodities, emphasised the need for an immediate amendment in the model Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act to make it trader friendly.

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