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Coronavirus pandemic | Lockdown locks down farmers’ income

Farmer leaders and agriculture experts expressed fear that once the lockdown is lifted, the crash in prices would severely impact income of millions of farmers

- India’s ongoing lockdown to control the spread of novel coronavirus or COVID-19 is threatening the agriculture sector as it overlaps with the time of harvest.

- The lockdown has derailed harvest preparation and lack of agricultural labour to help in harvest and restrictions on transportation of produce despite being given waivers as essential services.

- Farmer leaders and agriculture experts criticised the relief package announced by the government to aid farmers impacted by the coronavirus. They also expressed fear that once the lockdown is lifted, the crash in prices would severely impact income of millions of farmers.

Bharat Patel, a farmer in village Valvada in Valsad area in Gujarat, grows chilli and brinjal on his 22-acre farm. His crops are ready for harvest but the ongoing lockdown has disrupted his plans. “Neither do I have labour to help harvest the crops nor is there a buyer to buy them,” he says in a telephonic conversation with Mongabay-India. Patel had sown the crops this January with an approximate investment of over Rs 20 lakh.

“I was hoping to earn Rs 600,000-700,000 profit on these crops but now it seems that even getting back my investment is difficult. Around 50-60 labourers used to work in my field at this time, helping in harvesting. But right now, due to lockdown, it is only me and my family who is working the fields,” said Patel adding that he hopes the government provides some kind of relief for farmers like him.

Patel informed that some of the farmers like him who are not able to sell perishable crops are donating them to gaushalas (cow-sheds) where they can be consumed by cattle.

He is among millions of farmers in India who are facing challenges of harvesting, taking produce to agriculture markets and getting agricultural labour due to ongoing 21-day lockdown announced by the government to prevent the large scale outbreak of the coronavirus infection. This is even as authorities claim to be addressing their concerns.

The months of March and April in India are the time rabi crops like wheat, gram, tomatoes, mustard etc are ready for harvest. Rabi crops include crops that are sown in the winter season. Following an unpredictable monsoon last year in many parts of India, which included untimely rains in some and drought in other parts, the lockdown soon after is another blow to India’s farmers.

According to the Indian government’s data, as on April 1, India has 1,649 active COVID-19 cases and the disease has resulted in the death of 41 people so far. A nation-wide lockdown of the country was announced by the Prime Minister on March 24.

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Ramandeep Singh Mann, an agriculture expert, explained that one of the prime concerns for states like Punjab and Haryana, the ‘food bowls’ of the country, which are ready with the wheat crop, is that combine harvesters, the machinery to harvest the grain crop, are still stuck in Madhya Pradesh due to the lockdown.

“Farmers are very anxious. Even though the government has allowed the movement of combine harvesters under essential services, the order has not reached the people on the ground. Even by the most conservative estimates, around 5,000 such combine harvesters are stuck,” Mann told Mongabay-India while stating that both Haryana and Punjab state governments have written to the central government seeking permission for staggered procurement.

For instance, he said, the Haryana government has suggested that it will start procurement from April 20 and till May 5 they will procure the yield at the Minimum Support Price (MSP). “Beyond that, the state government will offer farmers an incentive of Rs 50 per quintal in addition to MSP between May 5 and 31 and then an incentive of 125 per quintal in addition to MSP for procurement in June. It is yet to be accepted but it’s a good suggestion,” said Mann but emphasised that farmers have trust issues because they fear that the government may stop procurement midway.

According to Mann, Punjab and Haryana together are expected to contribute about 22.5 million tonne (225 lakh tonne) of wheat.

He emphasised that another major concern of farmers right now is the lack of storage spaces. “For instance, the harvest of mustard in Haryana is nearly complete but many of them (who don’t have proper storage space) are praying that there should not be any rain now otherwise it will be disastrous for the yield,” Mann said.

Devinder Sharma, a Punjab-based agricultural policy expert, too expressed similar concerns. He said though the central government has put a lot of agricultural activities under essential services (to allow them during lockdown) the implementation on the ground has been very poor.

“A farm crisis is staring at us. In the last few days, we have seen so many examples of farmers throwing away their produce due to crash in the prices – tomatoes in Madhya Pradesh, chilli in Andhra Pradesh, milk in some areas and even watermelons,” Sharma told Mongabay-India.

He emphasised that what needs to be understood is that agriculture cannot be under lockdown. “We may not feel that there could be a food crisis because of our abundant food stock. However, what can be disastrous is the mismanagement of the system. We need to properly support farmers,” he said.

“While the other sectors in the economy are facing shutdown, it is agriculture that will continue. It is the only sustainable part of India’s economy. Unlike other industries, farmers can’t pull the shutter down and stop farming. If that happens, the economy will collapse. The reality is that we are ungrateful to our farmers even when we realise that during this lockdown the only thing that we want is food,” said Sharma.

Absence of agricultural labour holds up harvesting

According to the Indian government’s data, around 263 million people are involved in the agriculture sector. Of these, more than half are part of agricultural labour, who do not own farmland but work on others for wages, harvest the crops and support the sale of the crops at the mandis. Mandis are agricultural markets in every state where farm produce is bought, temporarily stored and sold.

After the lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister on March 24, thousands of people left cities to return to their villages – some in fear while some were forced as they were not in a position to earn their livelihood or pay rent to their landlords. This included many farm labourers.

Ramandeep Singh Mann stated that now it is nearly impossible for agriculture labour, which comes primarily from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to come to states like Haryana and Punjab for work due to the lockdown. “For instance, around 250,000-300,000 labourers work in approximately 2,000 mandis and grain purchase centres in Punjab alone. But if the harvest gets delayed the losses could be in the range of 30-40 percent of the yield. We hope that the situation is salvaged,” said Mann.

Jayesh Patel, who is President of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj (GKS), a group of over 500,000 farmers of the state in western India, emphasised that the whole farming community is in huge stress.

“It is not just the farmers but millions of labourers from within Gujarat and other parts of the country who are losing out on income. Who will feed those people? We have asked members of the GKS to take care of the labour that works in their farms, but there are millions of others,” said Patel.

Is price crash in the post-lockdown period a reality?

Farmer bodies and experts are concerned that the farmers may still absorb the delay in harvest due to lockdown. But once the 21-day lockdown is lifted, the crash in prices of their produce would seriously pinch the farmers.

Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) said certain guidelines and orders have been issued by the central government but it is not translating into any real support for the farmers on the ground.

“There is a great deal of distress. Two farmers, who were unable to sell their produce, have committed suicide in the first week of lockdown (one each in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka). It is a grim situation for both farmers as well as agricultural labour. I dread the day when lockdown will be lifted because then there will be the same lack of preparedness that was exhibited at the time of imposing the lockdown. There will be free run in the market for hoarding and wanting to stock up on different materials and in some cases could even lead to food riots and I am not exaggerating about it,” Kuruganti told Mongabay-India.

Incidents over the lockdown period provide evidence to such concerns by experts. For instance, on March 30, farmers in Mysuru (Karnataka) dumped tomatoes following a price crash. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country as well.

GKS’s President Jayesh Patel cited the example of Gujarat. “In our area, fruits like banana, chiku (Sapodilla), watermelon and vegetables are ready for harvest. But neither there is labour to help in harvest nor is there a buyer. The main concern is that these are perishable items. If not harvested in time, they will become unusable. A lot of quantity is exported from Gujarat as well as sent to different parts of the country,” Patel told Mongabay-India.

“We have given a representation to the government asking them to conduct a survey of our produce and provide compensation to us. For instance, a banana farmer who will not be able to sell his harvest would lose out on his year-long efforts. In normal times, 20 kg of banana is sold at Rs 250 in the wholesale market but right now it is being sold at Rs 2 per kg in the same market. Crashing down of prices once the lockdown is over is a scary situation,” Patel explained.

Government announces package but it may not be enough

Following the lockdown, India’s Finance Minister announced a relief package worth Rs 1.7 lakh crore to help the poor, which include around 800 million people in the country.

Among the benefits, the government announced that for farmers, the first instalment of Rs 2,000 due in 2020-21 will be front-loaded and paid in April itself under the PM KISAN Yojana (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme), a central sector scheme fully funded by the government of India under which income support of Rs 6,000 is provided to all farmer families across the country every year in three equal instalments of Rs 2,000 each every four months. The government said the move will cover 8.7 crore farmers but it didn’t impress the opposition and the experts.

But Devinder Sharma said “the package announced by the central government for farmers offers no relief to them because they were anyways scheduled to get Rs 2,000 in April. Instead, the government should have given them Rs 6,000 as a one-time thing.”

Kedar Sirohi, Working President of the Kisan Congress (Indian National Congress’s agriculture wing) in Madhya Pradesh, said the mandis in the state are closed. “With this lockdown, the income of farmers have fallen. This is harvest season and farmers need money. I fear that when the lockdown would lift, the price of the crops may crash and that will further impact farmers. The worst part is that there is no roadmap with the government on how to deal with it,” Sirohi told Mongabay-India.

Similarly, Kavitha Kuruganti said “the package that was announced was pathetic especially in terms of steps that were required for farmers.”

“The announcement about the interest subvention for three months was more of an afterthought after the initial announcements were criticised. But after such poor conditions of agricultural markets how are the authorities expecting that the farmers after three months will pay the money? Where will the money come from? The government’s package lacks compassion for both marginalised labour and farmers. There is no connection with the ground,” she said.

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it…