Almost two weeks ago, rural India seemed hopeful and optimistic. Rabi plants like wheat, legumes, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits like grapes, pomegranates and even the early mangoes appeared to be ready for a crop harvest across the country. Even the March rains and hailstorms in some areas in the north had not discouraged the farmers. In the midst of the slowdown, agriculture seemed to give hope for a revival of the economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting national ban have paid for it all. Overnight, this earthy rural optimism dissolved into deep pessimism. The three-week official ban that has stalled the movement of farm workers, temporary farm migrants, and agricultural and related machinery such as combine harvesters, threshing machines, tractors, trucks and other equipment has caused panic in the EU that villages and fears of a rural emergency are returning . If the blockade persists beyond April 14th, the entire Rabi crop in most states, which depends on the procurement of migrant workers and the harvesting of agricultural machinery, would be devastated. If the kharif sowing from May to June, which is 100 percent dependent on agricultural workers, is disrupted due to the expansion of the ban, the country’s entire agricultural system is on the brink of disaster.
Perishable goods hit hardest
Perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables are worst affected. The ban has completely destroyed the market for these products. There are simply no buyers. Talk to the Nashik winegrowers in Maharashtra, 80 percent of whom export their grapes, or to those from Chikkaballapur in Karnataka. the mango farmers in the Konkan region; or Nashik’s tomato and cucumber growers, the story is the same, a chronicle of rotting products and misery.
Agriculture in Maharashtra and Karnataka was already affected by unusual rains and a late winter. And now the lock came. In February and March, most farmers in both states harvest grains such as grapes, pomegranates, and jowar. For grapes and pomegranates, the initial estimates of losses are up to 40 percent of the products. The individual stories are nerve-wracking.
In Sinnar, Nashik, the winegrower Manoj Thete finally destroyed his fully ripe harvest because there are no workers, means of transport or markets for the products. Thete had taken out a loan of Rs 3.5 lakh to grow grapes over seven acres. He fears that the investment has gone down the drain. It’s impossible to get workers to cut the grapes, says Thete. I transported a few hundredweight to Uttar Pradesh, but they rot there in the trucks.
Satish Ugale, a farmer from Dindori in the Nashik district, brought 100 boxes of juicy peppers from his farm to the Agricultural Product Marketing Committee (APMC) in Nashik on March 30. He expected at least 100 rupees for a box (a box holds 20 kg). Instead, the dealer offered him Rs 15 per box. Since it didn’t even cover its transportation costs, Ugale distributed the peppers to the poor people in the area for free. It was better to feed the poor than the greedy trader, Ugale says.
Augustine Varkey, a farmer in Chikkaballapur, Karnataka, threw the grapes from his vineyard straight into the compost pit and then went to Twitter to tell his tragic story. Rajaram Goverdhane, a farmer in the village of Igatpuri in Nashik in Sanjegaon, feeds his cattle these days with juicy tomatoes and fresh cucumbers (see Let Someone Eat Them).
Maharashtra’s mango market, including the world-famous Alphonso variety, has annual sales of up to 3,500 rupees. The best variety from Konkan’s Devgad Taluka arrives from Akshay Tritiya in late April. Farmers in a single Taluka earn around 300 rupees from exports. If the blockade does not go away, the losses for the mango harvest would be unimaginable. With its largest markets, Europe and the United States, which are now epicentres of the pandemic, there is little hope for the fruit. Kokum processing is also an important small industry for women in rural areas of the state. This trade could also be angry now.
Tea cultivators are very concerned about the Nilgiris tea gardens in Tamil Nadu. Between March and May, thousands of growers harvest green tea leaves to supply the tea factories in the region, and are unsure how the ban will affect their products. In Bengal and Assam, the Indian Tea Association estimates the loss to the North Indian tea industry at 14,000 rupees (see We have had a great success).
The high and powerful have not been spared either. The head of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Sharad Pawar, whose party is part of the government coalition government in Maharashtra, is also affected by the ban. His banana harvest on 10 hectares is ready for harvest, but has not found any buyers. Since there are no workers, the crop will rot, he said in a Facebook chat with people on March 30. A positive sign: he added that he was certain that the government would compensate everyone for the loss.
Similarly, florists have a plentiful harvest of flowers but no buyers, with celebrations and religious events canceled. In Chennai, the otherwise busy Koyambedu wholesale market, one of the largest in Asia for perishable goods, looks deserted, and business is said to have halved. This despite the free movement of the essential across districts. At the end of March, Tamil Nadu closed its borders to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala by the end of the month for all vehicle movements with the exception of essential goods. The affected agricultural areas include regions that are approximately 70 km from Bengaluru. The city absorbs almost everything that grows in the border areas of Tamil Nadu. Many horticulturalists depend on Bengaluru for their sales, says Sudha Narayanan, development economist at the Indira Gandhi Development Research Institute (IGIDR) in Mumbai. Six days after the nationwide ban, the Tamil Nadu government eased restrictions on those working in the agricultural sector.
The northern discomfort
The same doomsday story traces the landscape in the northern states, a common story whether you’re traveling through Punjab and Haryana or the less wealthy Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal.
The agricultural assets of the labor-exporting states of East India are linked to the labor-importing states of West India through a complex system of labor migration. While the harvesting and procurement of Rabi in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and other countries is suffering from the severe labor shortage, the labor-exporting Bihar and UP, Odisha and Jharkhand suffer from the fact that their landless poor have no jobs and no remittances for their families in the villages.
In fact, the exporting states were hit by a double blow. While the temporary migrant workers, who travel in large numbers during the Rabi harvest season and mainly work in procurement, are helplessly stuck at home (see Migration is their only hope), there is a return migration of millions of urban migrants from Delhi and other cities. The pictures of them trudging hundreds of kilometers on foot with their skinny things will do much more in the coming days to make hungry people, people without work, without food and now at risk of infection in the community.
If the blockade goes beyond April 14 and there are no serious government initiatives beyond the previously announced welfare packages, this could lead to starvation in Bihar and UP, with the starvation rate increasing along with the pandemic deaths in the coming months says Praveen Jha, labor migration expert and professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
The emigration from Bihar alone will be between 5 and 10 million a year out of a population of 123 million in 2020, he warns of the effects that swarming returnees could have on the state. The peasant leader Binod Anand puts the figure at 20 million or a sixth of the state’s population even higher (including short-term temporary migration and longer-term permanent migration).
Punjab produces 13.5 million tons of wheat and 18 million tons of rice every year. Both the harvest and the state’s entire agricultural sector are heavily (80 percent) dependent on Bihari workers. In addition, a large amount of agricultural machinery used during harvesting and procurement in Punjab and Haryana was stuck in MP and elsewhere when the central states started harvesting Rabi in early February to March.
The suspension has also caused other problems. Dilbag Singh, 45, a farmer in Punjab’s Jalalabad area, grows mustard on 9 acres and wheat on 16 acres. Punjab is fully curfew until April 24th, so Dilbag and his brother Jaskaran, along with some local workers, harvested the mustard very early in the morning to avoid problems. Malkit Singh, a farmer in the Chamkaur Sahib region of Ropar District, says: There were no clear instructions from the district administration. And then social media were flooded with videos in which the police beat people up. We had no choice but to harvest our chickpea crop early in the morning.
According to Dilbag, wheat farmers are luckier because the showers in March and the extended winter have postponed the harvest season by at least a fortnight. The harvest time for Rabi plants such as wheat, mustard and chickpeas in the north and central Indian states is usually around April 1st. This time, however, the harvest should be delayed because the harvest will only be ready before April 15th, says Siraj Hussain. former Union Minister of Agriculture. A delay in the harvest season and the loosening of the blockage until the end of April are the only hope for farmers. Otherwise, the Rabi harvest in Punjab and Haryana is doomed to fail due to labor shortages.
The Union’s Ministry of Agriculture expected around 109 million tonnes for this year’s wheat harvest, around 6 percent more than in the previous year. We are watching closely. It won’t do any harm if the harvest time is scattered this time. In the past few years, the harvest took 6-8 weeks. This time it can take another fourteen days, says Ramesh Chand, member of NITI Aayog. A late schedule for central and government procurement should also help alleviate some of the pain.
An immediate problem in Punjab is that almost all of the 39 COVID-19 positive cases come from the villages. The state has already quarantined more than 30 villages in the Doaba region, where most migrant workers are employed, and the southeastern part of Punjab (Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Anandpur Sahib, Ropar District, etc.).
The Treasury is considering an improved minimum support price (MSP) payout mechanism to boost the rural economy. It allowed states to credit supplies of public distribution systems (PDS) for the next three months, and allowed 750 million beneficiaries to get an additional three month PDS quota free of charge.
Before the pandemic, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) cleared its food stocks with discounts of 12 to 15 percent. And now the additional PDS consumables should free up more storage space. The Treasury sees an opportunity to source additional wheat this season. FCI sources wheat from three countries, Punjab, Haryana and MP. All three countries are now demanding an additional bonus of 100 rupees per ton so that the farmer can fight the pandemic.
However, these are all step-by-step measures and a coherent strategy to deal with the upcoming crisis is still pending. Up until last week, a critical fallout from the ban was a combination of confusion, insecurity, and concern for farmers and consumers, which we will face in the coming weeks, Narayanan says. Today, she admits that the lack of migrant workers is the key factor in both North and South India.
The closure of APMC mandis in several states has unfortunately left farmers stuck with end-consumers or buyers from traders on their crops, which are mostly perishable goods. Farmers who typically sell their crops through established supply chains set up by the APMCs are now trying to avoid market yards and sell products on their doorstep. However, profits are still far away as the entire rural market has come to a standstill. Reports of arrogance by the police and minor corruption in dealings with carriers and dealers, who they claim are in breach of the blockade, have brought difficulties to the entire goods transportation network. In a typical case where the state unleashed its coercive apparatus, rural markets were brought to a standstill and various farmers’ organizations (FPOs) ceased and ceased to operate, Narayanan says.
The ban across the country has turned hope of a shock rabi harvest into complete despair. The only salvation will come from the late harvest and procurement, and the blockage will either be relaxed or lifted by April 14.
with Anilesh S. Mahajan, Kiran D. Tare and Aditi Pai