Saving the harvest – Cover Story News

Barely a fortnight ago, rural India appeared to be brimming with hope and optimism. Rabi crops like wheat, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits such as grapes, pomegranates and even the early mangoes appeared ready for a bumper harvest across the country. Even the March rains and hailstorms in some areas in the north had not disheartened the farmers. Amid the slowdown, agriculture appeared to hold out a glimmer of hope for a revival of the economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant national lockdown put paid to all that. Overnight, that earthy rural optimism has dissipated into deep pessimism. The three week-long officially imposed lockdown–which has brought to a screeching halt the movement of agricultural workers, temporary farm migrants, and farm and related machinery such as combine harvesters, threshers, tractors, trucks and other equipmenthas set off panic in the villages and fears of a rural distress return. If the lockdown remains in place beyond April 14, the entire rabi crop in most states, dependent as it is on migrant labour for procurement and farm machinery for harvesting, would be devastated. If the kharif sowing season in May-June, which is 100 per cent dependent on farm workers, ends up being disrupted due to the extension of the lockdown, the entire agricultural system in the country would be on the brink of a disaster.

Perishables hit the hardest

Perishables like fruits and vegetables have taken the worst hit. The lockdown has totally destroyed the market for these products. There are simply no buyers. Talk to the grape growers in Nashik in Maharashtra, 80 per cent of whom export their grapes, or the ones from Chikkaballapur in Karnataka; the mango farmers of the Konkan region; or the tomato and cucumber farmers of Nashik, the story is the same, a chronicle of rotting produce and misery.

Agriculture in Maharashtra and Karnataka had already been affected by unseasonal rains and a delayed winter. And now came the lockdown. February and March are when most farmers in the two states harvest crops like grapes, pomegranates and jowar. In grapes and pomegranates, initial estimates of losses are as high as 40 per cent of the produce. The individual stories are gut-wrenching.

In Sinnar, Nashik, grape farmer Manoj Thete finally destroyed his fully ripe crop as there are no labourers, transport or market for the produce. Thete had taken a loan of Rs 3.5 lakh to cultivate grapes on seven acres. He fears the investment has gone down the drain. It is impossible to get labourers to cut the grapes, says Thete. I transported a few quintals to Uttar Pradesh, but they are rotting in the trucks there.

Satish Ugale, a farmer from Dindori in Nashik district, took 100 crates of juicy capsicum from his farm to the agriculture produce marketing committee (APMC) in Nashik city on March 30. He was expecting at least Rs 100 for a crate (one crate holds 20 kgs). Instead, the trader offered him Rs 15 per crate. As it did not even cover his transportation cost, Ugale distributed the capsicum free to the poor people in the area. It was better to feed the poor than the greedy trader, says Ugale.

Augustine Varkey, a farmer in Chikka­ballapur, Karnataka, dumped the grapes from his vineyard straight into the compost pit and then took to Twitter to tell his tragic tale. Rajaram Goverdhane, a farmer in Sanjegaon village of Igatpuri in Nashik, is feeding his cattle juicy tomatoes and fresh cucumbers nowadays (see Let someone eat it’).

Maharashtra’s mango market, including the world-famous Alphonso variety, clocks an annual turnover of up to Rs 3,500 crore. The best variety from Konkan’s Devgad taluka arrive by Akshay Tritiya, which is towards the end of April. Farmers in a single taluka make around Rs 300 crore from exports. Unless the lockdown eases, the losses to the mango crop would be unimaginable. With its biggest markets, Europe and the US, now epicentres of the pandemic, there is little hope for the fruit. Likewise, kokum processing is a major small-scale industry for women in rural areas in the state. That trade, too, may turn sour now.

In the Nilgiris tea gardens in Tamil Nadu, tea cultivators are a worried lot. Thousands of growers harvest green tea leaves between March and May to supply to the tea factories in the region and are unsure of how the lockdown will impact their produce. Meanwhile, in Bengal and Assam, the Indian Tea Association estimates the loss to the north Indian tea industry at Rs 14,000 crore (see We’ve taken a huge hit’).

Even the high and mighty have not been spared. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) boss Sharad Pawar, whose party is part of the ruling coalition government in Maharashtra, is also impacted by the lockdown. His banana crop on 10 acres is ready for harvesting, but has found no takers. As there are no labourers, the crop will rot, he said in a Facebook chat with people on March 30. A positive sign: he also added that he was sure the government will pay compensation to everyone for the loss.

Similarly, floriculturists have a bountiful harvest of flowers but no takers,with celebrations and religious events being cancelled. In Chennai, the otherwise busy Koyambedu wholesale market, one of Asia’s largest for perishable goods, wears a deserted look with business said to be down by half. This is despite the free movement of essentials across districts. In late March, Tamil Nadu shut its borders with Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala until month-end for all vehicular movement except essential goods. Among the affected agricultural areas are regions that are approximately 70 km from Bengaluru. The city absorbs almost everything that grows in the border areas of Tamil Nadu. A lot of horticulture farmers are dependent on Bengaluru for their sales, says Sudha Narayanan, development economist at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai. Six days after the statewide lockdown, the Tamil Nadu government relaxed restrictions for those engaged in the agricultural sector.

The Northern Discomfort

The same doomsday story stalks the countryside across the northern states, a common tale whether you are travelling through Punjab and Haryana, or the less prosperous Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal.

The agricultural fortunes of the labour-exporting states of eastern India are interlocked with the labour-importing states of western India through a complex system of migration of labour. While rabi harvesting and procurement suffer as a result of severe shortage of labour in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and other states, labour-exporting Bihar and UP, Odisha and Jharkhand suffer because their landless poor have no jobs and no remittances for their families back in the villages.

In fact, the labour-exporting states have been struck by a double whammy. While the temporary migrant labour, who travel in large numbers during the rabi crop season and work mainly in procurement, are stuck helplessly at home (see Migrating is their only hope’), there is a reverse migration of millions of urban migrants from Delhi and other cities on. The visuals of them trudging on foot hundreds of kilometres with their meagre belongings will add to the many more in coming days, that of hungry people, those without jobs, without food, and now with the risk of community infection too.

If the lockdown goes beyond April 14 and if there are no serious government initiatives beyond the welfare packages already announced, this could lead to a famine-type situation in Bihar and UP, with starvation deaths spiking along with deaths from the pandemic in the coming months, says Praveen Jha, labour migration expert and professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

The outmigration from Bihar alone is anywhere from 5-10 million per year, out of the 123 million population in 2020, he adds, warning of the effect the swarming returnees could have on the state. Farmer leader Binod Anand pegs the figure even higher, at 20 million, or one-sixth of the state’s population (counting both the short-term temporary migration and the longer term permanent migration).

Punjab’s burden

Punjab produces 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 18 million tonnes of paddy each year. Both the crops and, indeed, the entire agriculture sector in the state are heavily dependent (80 per cent) on Bihari workers. On top of that, a large amount of farm machinery used during harvesting and procurement in Punjab and Haryana is stuck in MP and elsewhere as the central states began rabi harvesting earlier in February-March.

The lockdown has brought other kinds of trouble, too. Dilbag Singh, 45, a farmer in Punjab’s Jalalabad area, grows mustard on nine acres and wheat on 16 acres. Punjab is under full curfew till April 24, so Dilbag and his brother Jaskaran, along with some local labour, harvested the mustard crop very early at dawn to avoid trouble. Malkit Singh, a farmer in the Chamkaur Sahib area of Ropar district, says, There were no clear instructions from the district administration. And then social media was flooded with videos of the police beating up people. We had no option but to harvest our chickpea crop during the wee hours.

Dilbag says wheat growers are luckier, as the showers in March and extended winter has pushed the harvest season by at least a fortnight. The harvest season for rabi crops such as wheat, mustard and chickpeas in the north and central Indian states is usually around April 1. But this time, the harvest should be delayed, the crop will not get ready before April 15, says Siraj Hussain, former Union agriculture secretary. A delay in the harvest season and the lockdown being eased by April end are the only hope for farmers now. Otherwise, the rabi crop is doomed in Punjab and Haryana, given the labour shortage.

The Union ministry for agriculture expected this year’s wheat crop to be around 109 million tonnes, some 6 per cent more than the previous year’s output. We are keeping a close watch. There will be no harm if the harvest season is scattered this time. In previous years, we have seen the harvest go on for 6-8 weeks. This time, it may take an additional fortnight, says Ramesh Chand, member, NITI Aayog. A delayed schedule for central and state procurement should also help mitigate some of the pain.

A more immediate problem in Punjab is that almost all of the 39 COVID-19 positive cases have come from the villages. The state has already quarantined more than 30 villages in the Doaba region, where most of the migrant labour are conventionally engaged, along with the southeastern part of Punjab (Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Anandpur Sahib, Ropar district, etc).

What next?

The finance ministry is considering an improved disbursal mechanism for minimum support price (MSP) to kickstart the rural economy. It has allowed states to take public distribution system (PDS) supplies for the next three months on credit and has allowed 750 million beneficiaries to take an additional three months PDS quota for free.

Before the pandemic, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) was clearing their foodgrains stock by offering 12-15 per cent discounts. And now the additional PDS supplies should free up more space. The finance ministry sees this as an opportunity to procure additional wheat this season. FCI procures wheat from three states, Punjab, Haryana and MP. All three states are now seeking an additional bonus of Rs 100 per tonne for the farmer to battle the pandemic.

But these are all piecemeal measures, a coherent strategy to deal with the impending crisis is yet to emerge. Till last week, a critical fallout of the lockdown was a combination of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety for farmers and consumers alike as to what lies in store in the coming weeks, says Narayanan. Today, she admits the critical factor is shortage of labour migrants, both in north as well as south India.

The closure of APMC mandis in several states has left farmers haplessly stuck with their harvests, largely of perishables, without any end consumers or trader-buyers. Farmers who usually sell their crops through established supply chains set up by the APMCs are now trying to avoid the market yards and sell produce from their doorstep. But profits are still a long way away as the entire rural marketplace has come to a grinding halt. Reports of police high-handedness and petty corruption while handling transporters and traders, who they claim were violating the lockdown, threw the entire goods transportation network into a tizzy. In a typical case of the state unleashing its coercive app­aratus, rural markets were brought to a screeching halt with various farmer producer organisations (FPOs) ending up cancelling and suspending their activities, says Narayanan.

The lockdown across the country has turned the hope of a bumper rabi harvest into utter despair. The only saving grace will come from the delayed harvest and procurement, and the lockdown being either relaxed or lifted by April 14.

with Anilesh S. Mahajan, Kiran D. Tare and Aditi Pai

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