Flour mills across the country reduced their operating capacity to an average of 25% due to the unavailability of wheat, workers and packaging materials following the 21-day national closure to prevent the spread coronavirus.
India has some 2,500 units and an annual wheat processing capacity of around 25 million tonnes for the production of flour, semolina (sooji) and refined flour (maida). Contributing to almost half the number, small wheat processing plants had to close due to the blockage of working capital by manufacturers of cookies, bread and paving stones (double bread).
During this closure, all these bakery units, which mainly come from the unorganized sector and the craft industry, closed shop to prevent public gathering and maintain social distance. The reduction in wheat processing capacity is expected to affect the supply of flour, sooji and maida in the near future, and consumers may have to pay much more to buy them.
“The purchase of wheat has become a big problem due to the closure of several mandis. In addition, the circulation of trucks is restricted for fear of police harassment. This, despite the assurance given by the government to authorize interstate truck traffic. We operate at only 25% capacity, which is the case for most small and medium-sized flour mills in the country, “said D Manikchand, Panchaganga Roller Flour Mills, a mill in Shirgon ( Maharashtra).
Since plastic was classified as a non-essential product, the factories manufacturing the article remained closed, which had an impact on the availability of plastic packaging materials.
“Since edible items like flour, sooji and maida cannot be sold in bulk, the unavailability of packaging materials and the lack of any other means of packaging has slowed production,” said Manikchand.
In addition, reverse labor migration before the 21-day blockade introduced on March 25 has created a huge labor shortage in all manufacturing sectors, and millers are no exception.
Further aggravating the situation, the Union’s interior ministry wrote to the secretary of the food ministry on April 7 citing the law on essential products across the country. This would essentially allow local authorities to invoke stock limits on any product and to inspect factories and godowns at any time. Violation of the stock limits would result in seven years in prison. The government of Rajasthan has already implemented the law.
“We have recommended that the government authorize the sale of wheat directly to flour mills. In addition, with an exceptional wheat production estimated at 100 million tonnes, government agencies are struggling to create storage. So instead of leaving if the wheat bought is rotting, it would be better if the flour mills store it for processing, ”said Sanjay Puri, president of the Indian Mills Federation (RFMFI).
India is also an exporter of wheat. In March 2020, more than 27.5 million tonnes of wheat stocks were held at various properties of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), a public company. This is almost 15% more than the 23.9 million tonnes declared the same month last year.
Meanwhile, Vijay Sardana, an expert on agricultural products, stressed the need for an immediate modification of the APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) model law to make it user-friendly for traders.