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Can COVID-19 Outbreak Cause Food Crisis As Farmers Struggle To Harvest, Sell Produce, Sow Next Crop Amid Restrictions?

As winter crop harvesting starts gaining some momentum, farmers face new challenges ranging from lack of labour, transportation to selling at prices less than minimum support price

Can COVID-19 Outbreak Cause Food Crisis As Farmers Struggle To Harvest, Sell Produce, Sow Next Crop Amid Restrictions?
  • Procurement of wheat began almost a month late due to COVID-19 lockdown
  • Lockdown led to migrant exodus causing labour crunch
  • Farmers are getting Rs.300-400 less than MSP for their crops at some places

New Delhi: COVID-19 has thrown up a new set of challenges to farmers in the country. The lockdown imposed by the central government to curb the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease COVID-19, has coincided with the time of harvesting of Rabi crops that are sown in winters like wheat, barley, mustard and peas. The lockdown has not only impacted the pace of harvesting but has also left farmers with challenges in marketing the produce, procuring seeds and sowing the kharif corps or the summer rain-fed crops that majorly include rice, maize, pulses and groundnut. According to experts, the pandemic has hit both Rabi and Kharif seasons which is impacting food systems in the country as well as globally, and while this year there is a surplus of foodgrain stock in the country, disruption in the smooth movement of goods and services necessary in farming and marketing can pose risks to the nation’s food and nutrition security in the coming years.

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While talking to NDTV about the impact of coronavirus on agriculture, Sardar VM Singh, agriculturist and President of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan who has been fighting for the rights of farmers for the last 20 years said,

India is one of the world’s largest producers of rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, fruits, vegetables and milk. More than half of India’s workforce is engaged in farming, while agriculture contributes some 16 per cent to the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Now the concerns are that stopping or slowing down of farm activities will not only end up hurting farmers and labourers but will also affect food security.

According to Soma Kishore Parthasarathy, one of the founders of Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, a community of researchers and agriculture experts working towards the issues of women farmers, farmers’ distress has not received any attention in the relief package announced by the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman even though the pandemic has hit the nation during the peak farm activity months. She said,

Finance Minister had something or the other for many sections of the society but for farmers, it was nothing more than a plain deception. Ms. Sitharaman re-packaged the next instalment of Kisan Samman Nidhi due in April anyway as relief fund for the farmers. This is extremely sad that the government thinks that they doing some sort of favour to the farmers but in reality, it’s the farmers who are braving up the contagious disease and all kinds of other problems to feed the nation.

This year, the procurement of wheat in the country began from April 15, as directed in a notice of the central government dated April 13.

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Challenges Being Faced By Farmers During The Lockdown

Labour Shortage For Harvesting

Rajesh Dahiya, a wheat farmer in a village near Sonipat, Haryana, shared that his village, like many other villages, too faced massive labour shortage because of the reverse migration of farmworkers. He said,

This is the harvest season. Normally, the labourers who work on the farms come from parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. I have somehow managed to harvest a part of my crop. But now selling the harvested crop, clearing the rest of the field and preparing it for the next crop are still left and I am the only one to take care of all this without any support from farm labourers or the government.

While Deputy CM of Haryana Dushyant Chautala said to NDTV, that the state government will procure the entire produce from farmers within 90 days owing to the state’s well-established procurement system, the public purchasing of grains, according to Mr. Dahia has started only four days back and will continue till the end of June. This, according to him will delay in sowing of paddy because most of the produce is lying in the field itself due to lack of storage and since the process of procurement has been slowed down in the mandis because of social distancing norms, it will take many more days to clear the fields.

In Uttar Pradesh, however, the shortage of labour has not been a major challenge. This is because the farms are small and farmers at many places managed with the help of their family members, fellow farmers and the available seasonal labour. However, the bigger farmers who rely on rented mechanical harvesters said the machines are hard to find. Dharampal Malik, a farmer in Muzaffarnagar said,

The machines called ‘combine harvesters’ come from farmers of Punjab every year in large numbers. But this has not been the case this time because of the lockdown. We had to grapple for arranging machines locally.

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No Fodder For Dairy Farmers

Because of the delay in harvesting, the husk from threshing and separating of wheat grains, which becomes fodder for the cattle, is not available. Animal husbandry forms a major part of rural incomes. Ombati Chauhan, 60-year-old dairy farmer who has three cows and four buffaloes said,

The stock of fodder with us will dry up soon and it is hardly available in the market. Even our neighbors don’t have fodder left for feeding their animals. When they’ll harvest, the cattle will get food. I want to request the government to arrange for fodder ‘Pashu-ahaar’ for at least one month as we are hoping that the fodder supply will increase once the harvesting is over.

Lack of Transportation And Fear Of Police

Nathu Saini, 44-year-old farmer in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, was finding it difficult to sell his freshly harvested cauliflower to mandis in other cities because transporters are not ready to ferry the produce. He said that there has been a fear of police crackdown while crossing borders. He said,

I still have some stock left. I am praying that it doesn’t get infected with insects. I am waiting for the lockdown to get over. I will go to Mumbai to sell it.

According to Nathu, while the state government has allowed farmers to go to their farms, even during the lockdown by providing passes, the way police have been behaving with them is nothing less than exploitation.

An official from the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare said that the central government has directed all state governments to facilitate the smooth operation of farm activities. He added that in a bid to facilitate transportation of foodgrains and perishables farm produces during the lockdown, the central government launched ‘Kisan Rath’ mobile app on April 17 for connecting farmers and traders with transporters. It has also started an All India Agri Transport Call Centre on April 15 to facilitate inter-sate movement of crops and farm inputs during the lockdown.

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Disputes In Mandis

The public procurement of grains in the country is mainly done through contractors or traders in procurement centres called mandis. Farmers who are registered with the government procurement system get intimation about the trader, quantity of produce allowed for sale and day that farmer should bring the wheat for sale. Shishupal Singh, 52-year-old wheat farmer in a village in Pilibhit district said,

At mandis, the gatekeeper allows only those to enter who are ready to pay bribes and higher charges for using the measurement scale and labour to unload the grains and pack the produce in sacks. Ideally, this amount needs to be paid by the contractor who buys the grain. But they are asking the farmers to pay this amount. We have raised this issue with the agriculture officers here but it seems like they don’t care about farmer’s distress. We are tired of fighting against this.

Another problem highlighted by Mr. Singh is that because of the shortage of workers in mandis due to the lockdown, processes, like filling wheat in sacks and weighing, are taking too much time. Since the government allows only a part of the produce to be sold in one visit, a farmer may have to make many trips to the mandi and face the same process again and again, adding to his cost and loss of time.

Proper storage facility and its rent is another issue that arises from this system. For instance, Mr. Singh who has about five hectares of land is able to produce around 100 quintals of wheat whereas the message he got mentions that out of his total produce, he can only the sell 13 quintals to the procurement centre in one visit. For the rest of the produce, he will have to arrange for storage as he was told that he would get another chance to sell more after 10-15 days.

Sometimes, because of the aforementioned challenges, the farmers distress sell their produce to private traders even if they are getting much lesser amount per quintal, highlighted Shishupal.

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Expectations Of Farmers From The Government To Avert Food Insecurity In Future

According to Nilachala Acharya, Budget Specialist- agriculture at Centre for Budget and Governance and Accountability (CBGA), in most agriculture based households in the country, the youngsters are not encouraged to take up farming because parents want to keep their children from facing the distress they have faced. He said,

Every year, the number of cultivators or the crop growers in the country is going down. According to Census data, decade of 2001–11 has seen a decline in the number of cultivators. While there were 127.3 million cultivators in 2001, the number declined to 118.7 million in 2011, a fall of 6.7 per cent. This is a very disturbing development and evidence showcasing that our farmers are leaving agriculture. Without food growers, there will be food crisis.

Sardar VM Singh highlighted that every year, due to hailstorm and other natural causes, farmers face loss of crops for which they never get due reimbursement. More than 3.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the last 20 years because of agriculture distress including the high cost of cultivation, poor remuneration from the cultivation of crops, and indebtedness. This year, the coronavirus has put them in a vulnerable situation. He further said that the centre is considering bringing another relief package, which provides another opportunity for the government to help the farmers. He asserted that urgent and immediate steps need to be taken to extend support to farmers, on whom the lives of all citizens of the country depend on. The expectations of farmers from the government are as follows:

All Produce To Be Sold At Minimum Support Price

When it comes to MSP, the general understanding is that farmers are receiving a minimum amount for their produce, but farmers and agriculture experts have highlighted that this happens only rarely. Mr. Singh said,

Nowhere are farmers getting the MSP and there is a need of the government to intervene. Every year only about 5-6 per cent of the entire produce is actually bought on MSP.

He suggested that either the government should buy the entire produce and give farmer the money at the MSP rate of Rs. 1950 per quintal of wheat or the other thing that the government can do is to procure wheat from the farmers enough for food security of the poor and buffer stock and let them sell the rest of the produce in the market with a minimum price limit of Rs. 20-25 per kilogram. He said,

Today the farmers are forced to sell at Rs. 16-17 per kilogram and are facing major losses. The government needs to bring out a blanket order that nobody buys the produce below a particular price.

Farmer Dharampal Malik said that every year farmers expect to sell their produce at least at the Minimum Support Price (MSP). A look at the e-NAM (electronic National Agriculture Market) portal which is a government-run network of Agriculture Producer Market Committees (APMC), shows that on at many places wheat prices have been trending lower than the MSP and is being quoted in the range of Rs. 1,750-1,800 per quintal, as against the MSP of Rs. 1,925.

Government/ Buyers Should Procure Grains From The Farm

Another demand from the farmers is that the government should remove the quantity restrictions for selling the produce, considering the unprecedented situation this year and must procure grains directly from farms.

Sardar VM Singh further said that in the wake of the current crisis, the only thing that gave the government some confidence on being able to tackle the wrath of lockdown on the poor, migrant workers and daily wagers was the availability of surplus foodgrain stock in the state warehouses. By distributing the grains through dry ration and cooked meals, they are able to address food insecurity among masses by providing immediate relief. He urges the government to think about the coming years also, how will they ensure the supply of foodgrains if this year’s agriculture cycle gets disturbed.

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