‘Food today, no farmer tomorrow’: Scientist Devinder Sharma on why there can be no agriculture lockdown

The rabi harvest season begins on April 15, and the Narendra Modi government must urgently step in and step up.

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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Can the Covid-19 national lockdown empty out the food bowl of India? The procurement date for the rabi harvesting and marketing season of wheat, mustard and pulses in central and north India is April 15-20. But with borders closed, transport banned, labour movement restricted, and social distancing the norm today, how will farmers harvest and haul millions of tonnes of grains to the thousands of collection centres in states?

What about the fate of farmers and dairy producers dealing in perishable products like fruits, vegetables, flowers and dairy? Is the country heading towards a famine or are food stocks enough for a year?

Devinder Sharma, agricultural scientist and food and policy analyst, has some insight.

What is the state of food stocks?

The lockdown has coincided with the rabi harvest season and that is where problems have accumulated.

First, let’s look at perishable items. Across the country, the vegetable rabi crop — from tomatoes, cauliflower, garlic, potatoes, to fruits like melons, mangos, grapes, oranges, etc — cannot wait to be harvested. The farmer has already suffered because of unseasonal rains and now has been hit again for lack of planning and strategising by the government on the lockdown.

Similarly, dairy, oil seed crops and fisheries are hit as the supply chain was disrupted, which hit the wholesale and retail markets, which resulted in no buyers.

You see, the cows will produce milk every day, fruits and vegetables will have to be plucked. There can be no lockdown in agriculture. It is why strawberries are being fed to cows, and grapes simply flushed into the fields. All these fruits and vegetables are simply rotting because the mandis (markets) are shut, there’s no labour to harvest, and transport that took the produce to the procurement centres has been stopped. If some farmers managed to take their produce to the centres, they would face the lathis of the police.

The losses faced by farmers are devastating for the sector.

What should the Modi government have done?

The Centre should have created conditions for the farmer to continue with his activities as there’s no escape — you can delay the harvesting of wheat for five or six days but not beyond. It should have calibrated the lockdown in such a way that the supply chain, from the farmer to the market, should have been taken care of. After all, the first case of Covid-19 came to India on January 30 in Kerala, and the Modi government had almost two months to prepare, keeping the rabi crop in mind.

Even with the lockdown on March 24, the government could have allowed the flow of goods and the supply chain to continue, with some safety measures in place, in rural areas. For instance, Alphonso mangoes are not in the exports list this year, but there are no plans yet for the excess that will mount today. Milk should have been sent to distribution centres and agencies could have bought it to convert it to milk powder.

Instead, the Modi government issued directives and notifications later (March 27) to exempt agricultural activities from lockdown rules, like allowing farmwork, opening up of mandis, procurement centres, agencies hiring out agri-equipment, fertiliser shops, intra- and inter-state movement. But the procedure is still hazy and immeasurable damage has already been done, and is continuing to be destructive for the farmer.

What is the situation now as the rabi crop procurement will begin on April 15?

The supply chain is not exactly back in place, but it is being smoothened by state governments out in many parts of the country. For instance, in many places, the supply chain for perishable products is working better than immediately after the lockdown. Many big mandis have opened up, allowing the flow of fruits and vegetables to the markets.

As for cereal stocks like wheat, rice etc, I would say India is blessed at this juncture as we have abundant stocks, which has been due to our booming food production in the last few years. The government’s assessment for July this year, including this year’s rabi crop, is 83.7 million tons of wheat and rice. It includes 46.3 million tons of surplus stocks over and above our PDS requirement. This will take care of our requirements for a year and more

Has the supply chain been restored for rabi cereals like wheat, as the Centre has lifted lockdown restrictions on agriculture?

Wheat harvest begins in April in north India, in Punjab and Haryana, the two biggest wheat growing states. The harvest season begins from central India, like Madhya Pradesh, which normally begins its procurement on April 2.

However, because of the lockdown, Madhya Pradesh’s procurement date has been deferred to April 15. Punjab will begin procurement on April 15; Haryana has deferred its date to April 20. Punjab is expecting 135 lakh tonnes to come to its procurement centres; Haryana is expecting 80 lakh tonnes.

What are the preparations being made to ease procurement?

The Punjab state government has laid out a plan to avoid overcrowding. There are 1,820 procurement or purchase centres in the state but to avoid a rush, the state government has emptied out 2,000 rice mills of paddy and converted them to procurement centres. It has also temporarily converted schools and has doubled, and more, its procurement centres.

The state will now allow only three people per tractor — the farmer, driver and helper — and only the farmer will be allowed inside, while the other two will be put up in tents outside with food and water provided for all.

Similarly, Haryana, which has 477 centres, is now readying a total of 2,000 sites by opening up schools, etc.

Has the migrant exodus hit the farm labour sector?

The entire agricultural sector has been hit by shortage of labour because of the lockdown. Today there is no free movement of labour, they cannot move from village to village, people have also blockaded entry points to stop labor for fear of Covid-19.

But unlike many other parts of the country, harvesting is almost 80 percent mechanised in both Punjab and Haryana. So they should do better.

In Madhya Pradesh, it’s mixed harvesting. The farmer has no choice in this extraordinary situation. He’ll have to pay higher labour costs for increased labour demand and, if need be, even bring his family in, but all the costs will have to be borne by the overstretched farmer.

What kind of extraordinary support can the Modi government give to the farmers today?

There are two crucial steps the government can take: One, to stagger the procurement process of wheat beyond April 20, which has been suggested by the Haryana government; and then award the farmer a bonus of Rs 50 per quintal after May 6, and Rs 100 per quintal after June 30. The state governments have asked the Centre to reimburse it for this measure as it could ease the rush at procurement centres.

The other suggestion by the Punjab state government is permission to use MNREGA labour in farms, and also the huge [number of] migrants that have returned home. The Centre is still to reply, the reason being there are several conditions imposed on MNREGA beneficiaries who have a list of jobs they can or cannot do.

What other measures should the government take to help the farmer in the lockdown, as it may continue for a longer period?

In this critical time, when farmers will bear the maximum brunt of the lockdown, it is only befitting that the government announce an economic stimulus package exclusively for them to help a faster recovery in the growth of the economy.

My suggestion would be to give the full amount of the annual Rs 6,000 direct income support, under the Prime Minister Kisan Nidhi scheme, this month itself and continue with the rest of installments. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had grandly announced that the Centre would assure Rs 2,000 in the bank account of famers by April under the scheme, but this was due to the farmer in any case. It would be a great benefit to the farmer if the Modi government gave an additional Rs 4,000 as a one-time support to at least cover his losses for the moment.

If the IT sector can demand a tax holiday from the government, why can’t farmers ask for a bonus of Rs 100 per quintal for their wheat and mustard crop? Every state is in dire need and it is crucial the Modi government takes decisions to protect the farming sector. Or else, the country will have its food today, there will be no farmer tomorrow.

Also see
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