The COVID-19 pandemic has not only hit manufacturing, services and business but also pushed back the Narendra Modi government’s ambitious programme to double farmers’ income by 2022. From feeding a population displaced, dislocated and frozen in its tracks, to ensuring farmers stay afloat in the coming months, the government has a tough job on its hands to which it will have to respond quickly and generously. Farmers are in deep distress after the lockdown caused disruptions in the food supply chain, scarcity of labour and resulted in a decline in demand.
People in all walks of life are stressed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but unlike in other sectors, a large majority of the farming community, including farm labour, tenant farmers and women farmers, do not have any savings to fall back upon. They deserve top priority attention.
It is largely recognised that farming is not a remunerative occupation, which is why the Modi government planned to double farmers’ income in the next two years through various schemes. Finding markets – domestic and global – was central to the plan, but the pandemic has upset the applecart, as the economy has taken a beating and the recovery period is anybody’s guess.
The untimely rain and hail that hit parts of northwest India this week and the last could not have come at a worse time, when the wheat crop is standing in the fields and farmers are short of hands to harvest and sell their produce through a fractured supply chain.
The government has opened a few procurement centres for limited operations, but restricting the entry of farmers has resulted in tardy progress and long queues, which is making farmers restive. Even the grain that has been purchased is not being moved out of the mandis quickly, exposing it to the vagaries of weather. Increase in the moisture content of rain-drenched harvest hurts the quality of grain. At this time, when the entire world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and there are lakhs of hungry mouths to feed, every grain is worth its value in gold.
The situation in horticulture and floriculture sectors is worse, as fruit, vegetable and flower growers are unable to find markets due to restrictions in movement and fall in demand. This has resulted not only in mounting stocks of perishables such as grapes, strawberries, watermelons, bananas, broccoli, lettuce, red radish and Chinese cabbage but also in steep fall in prices. Already growers of exotic vegetables in northwest India have started to dump their produce for use as animal feed and manure. Many, who had taken loans to invest in poly houses and greenhouses, fear they will slip into indebtedness. Exportable commodities as spices also face a fall in demand and prices.
It is a travesty of Indian agriculture that most farmers, 85% of whom are with small and marginal landholdings, do not have storage capacity. In the present circumstance, wheat growers, for instance, do not even have the wherewithal to transport their harvested crop to grain markets controlled under the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act. Since only a few farmers are being allowed at a time in the grain markets, cultivators have to spend double the amount of money to first hire storage space, and then transport their produce from there to the purchase centre. The extra expenditure during a severe cash crunch is breaking farmers’ backs.
Much of the harvesting in Punjab, Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh is mechanised but the harvester combines are normally custom-hired first to the early harvesting states as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. This year, the machines could not return in time due to the countrywide lockdown, forcing Punjab and Haryana farmers to employ expensive labour to harvest their crop.
Some of the Punjab and Haryana farmers told this writer that they did not expect to get the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,925 per quintal for wheat, but hoped to at least sell their full harvest in time to clear the field for sowing the kharif crop.
With the apprehension that it is going to be a long haul before the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are overcome, many farmers have been forced to sell their produce outside of grain markets to private traders and flour millers at low rates which means that they will not be able to recover even input costs of sowing, leave alone be able to repay loans.
Although the Central government relaxed restrictions for the agriculture, dairying and fisheries sectors on April 20, they are facing issues such as lack of labour, access to markets and interrupted supply chains because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
However, despite sporadic damage from untimely rain, the rabi crop is likely to be good this year due to expectations of higher productivity (yield per acre). Even though the government has doubled the public distribution system (PDS) entitlement per beneficiary during the coronavirus lockdown period, official sources maintain that cereal stocks with the Food Corporation of India, augmented by the new crop, will be sufficient to meet rationed supplies and other obligations.
But these are unusual times. With a paralysed economy and people lacking purchasing power, the government is under pressure to go beyond the mandatory obligation under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and universalise the PDS to take care of every hungry poor, migrant and unemployed labour who do not have ration cards. In effect, there will be thousands of such people, because the cap on the population to be covered under the NFSA excludes many destitute people, migrant labour, slum dwellers and single women. Several states bemoan that not all of their poor are taken care of under the PDS.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, even before COVID-19 hit, 113 million people on the planet were already struggling with severe food insecurity. They are the most vulnerable and face “a crisis within a crisis”.
If anything, the coronavirus spread has exposed the infirmities in the agriculture sector in India and the odds against which farmers work and deliver grains to an ever-growing population. The government wants the country to go digital but the real backbone of the economy – agriculture and allied sectors – lack investment, infrastructure, modern facilities, de-centralised storages, markets, seamless supply chains, uninterrupted internet connections, power, water supply and an efficient system of timely payments to farmers.
Clearly the government will have to step back and review its programme for doubling farmers’ income in the next two years. It will first have to take measures that pull out growers from the economic morass the pandemic has pushed them into. Unlike industry and manufacturing sector, farmers did not stop production of foodgrains, pulses, milk, fruits and vegetables through the lockdown months. On the contrary, they are set to give the nation record output of wheat, pulses, milk, fruits and vegetables.
To lift the morale of farmers, the government must come out with a financial package that takes care of their loan this year not only from banks and lending institutions but also from the informal sector. Even a developed and affluent country like the US has come forward with a $19 billion bailout package for its farmers, including $16 billion in direct payment. Apart from that, the US Department of Agriculture will spend $3 billion to directly purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat products from its farmers and distribute to needy people through NGOs and such organisations.
For Indian farmers, an immediate measure would be to substantially raise the direct income assistance of Rs 2,000 per quarter to registered farmers under PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna, which will take care of farmers’ loan and provide them some income in hand. The scheme must be expanded to include tenant farmers, non-loanee farmers, women-headed farmer households and single-women farmers if the help has to be genuine and all-encompassing. Gram sabhas can play a central role in verifying claimants who lack Aadhaar card. The funds raised under PM CARES could be handy for this ‘stitch in time’.
Growers will need monetary assistance to buy seeds, fertilizers and other inputs for the next sowing season to produce enough to keep the nation’s granaries full. They also need to take care of their families in such trying times.
Apart from that, it must be ensured that all of the grain and pulses farmers bring to the government procurement centres are purchased and at the fixed support price. At the same time, the government must facilitate timely availability of adequate quantities of quality seeds/saplings and fertilizers for the next sowing season.
The cash strapped Indian farmer has played a key role through the coronavirus crisis in keeping the country well provided and that should never be forgotten. If help is not given now, farmers will slip into debt and the agrarian crisis will deepen, which will be further bad for the country’s overall economy.
Gargi Parsai is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected].