Pandemic COVID-19 shook the world with its virulent tentacles. In the last couple of months, the world has virtually come to a standstill and is on the verge of a tragic collapse as almost all sectors are adversely impacted.
India has taken a timely measure by implementing a lockdown till 17th May, which may be extended further, to contain the spread of the virus. Apparently, this has paid us well since sudden and rapid surge has not been reported in recent times even though the number of positive cases has gone past 53,000.
But it has impacted almost every sector of the economy and all spheres of life. Among others, agriculture and rural economy have been hit hard by the lockdown. However, the farm sector can be stabilized with a slew of measures, thus ensuring food and nutrition security.
A majority of people involved in food production being left out of the food distribution despite availability of stock, lack of workforce for harvesting, inability of farmers to sell horticulture crop due to supply chain disruption and distress sale of milk due to decreased demand are the immediate challenges facing the farm sector.
Even though combined efforts of central and state governments are directed towards distributing food items, a section of the targeted population is still left out. A majority of them are marginal and small farmers, farm laborers and sharecroppers – who are in fact engaged in food production. This is happening due to inefficient distribution network, reminding us of the tragic death of 2.5 million people during the great Bengal famine, though we had sufficient food stock even then.
Most noticeable and immediate fallout of the lockdown is shortage of labor for agricultural operations. Migrant workers play a major role in this rabi harvesting season. For instance, many laborers who come from Jharkhand every season to reap boro rice in Bengal will not be able to cross over and it will affect rice harvest. The next best alternative of mechanized harvesting has its own limitations. Excess grain moisture, loss of straw (used as fodder and thatching) and limited number of combined harvesters pose a problem.
Disturbing visuals of farmers leaving their vegetables at farms and letting the produce rot, uncover a fragile marketing provision, particularly during this lockdown period. This will not only make farmers distressed but also contribute to a price surge in the market.
Due to closure of lakhs of restaurants, hotels and roadside eateries during lockdown, milk consumption has declined by 25%, leading to an unprecedented market glut and Rs 5-7 less price realization by dairy farmers. Though domestic consumption of milk and milk derivatives has increased as most people are at home, that is too little to offset the demand lost in other segments. Thus, dairy farmers of milk producing states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have resorted to distress selling.
Firming up farm economy
Sufficient food stock, bumper rabi harvest and prediction of a normal monsoon are important positive aspects in taking the farm momentum forward during the lockdown. These apart, government should take note of some aspects such as facilitating mechanized harvesting and supply of farm products, among others.
Labor shortage should be mitigated through localized solutions with appropriate government interventions. State governments may allocate fund to enable small and marginal farmers use combined harvesters at a subsidized rate. These two categories of farmers make up 85% of all farmers and are often economically vulnerable. The government should define a set of modalities and standard operating procedures to implement it.
In view of the huge challenge that farmers face in selling their produce, and to avert possible price exploitation, state governments should adopt a defined strategy to firm up local mandi operation. This will ensure a reasonable price for farmers and uninterrupted supply of farm products. Special price protection strategy should be devised for dairy farmers for at least the next 4-5 months.
Kharif season is fast approaching and timely availability of farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery is critically important now. State governments have already made several measures for a smooth supply of agricultural inputs. However, this has to be closely monitored and any impeding issue must be resolved swiftly.
Due to constricted non-farm income and farmers’ struggle to sell farm produce at remunerative price, working capital of farm households is now reduced considerably. Hence government should take new initiatives to increase credit flow into the farm sector. Lending capacity of cooperative banks, regional rural banks, commercial banks and self-help group federations should be enhanced. This will help farmers carry out regular farm operations.
There is a risk of contracting the virus when farmers are out and working. Local administration (block and panchayat) should take the lead in disseminating the standard guidelines of social distancing among farmers and community at large. The farm advisory that Indian Council of Agricultural Research circulated recently is a handy document in this regard. This will ensure adequate safety measures, and prevent transmission and collateral damages.
This is not a normal year and hence any disruption of agricultural operation will cost us dear. In light of this unprecedented situation, state governments must take additional steps to assist farmers with mobile-based crop and weather advisories and marketing information.
In India, there are approximately five crore migrants working in different states. Once this pandemic subsides, because of mental trauma and emotional adherence, it is unlikely that they would go back to their workplace anytime soon. There will soon rise a scenario when states like Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab and Gujarat will face shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled labor, whereas Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha will experience labor surplus with more returnee migrants in agriculture.
Post COVID-19, India’s bread basket states Punjab and Haryana will see a sharp drop in exodus of agriculture daily wagers from other states like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar. These two states together need roughly 16 lakh farm hands for harvesting and procurement. This may trigger a change in cropping pattern with adoption of less labor intensive crops to overcome labor shortage.
There are expectations that the current crisis will trigger more budget allocation for the farm sector. In the current fiscal, central government has earmarked Rs 142,000 crore for agriculture and more than half of it will be spent on PM-Kisan scheme (direct cash support to farmers). In view of this livelihood crisis, this sector is expected to receive more fund.
Biggest challenge now is to take the stocked food to those who need it, through a vibrant supply system. Administration is relentlessly working to fix current loopholes. This is indirectly a long-term course correction measure, which will revamp food supply system. Thus, a robust food distribution network with greater efficiency might emerge after this pandemic.
Increased application of digital solution and advisories will remain even after this lockdown. Hence in the coming years, the sector will be more equipped with digital platforms for the betterment of farmers.
Sk Mosharaf Hossain is a monitoring and evaluation specialist; Swati Nayak is as seed system scientist. Both work at International Rice Research Institute, Odisha. Views are personal.