As many states in north India begin their food grain procurement operations and more and more news begin to filter in from rural India, we can see one of the biggest blunders of the ongoing coronavirus lockdown strategy: it might turn India’s biggest asset during this crisis into our biggest liability for a long time to come.
Agrarian sector can be India’s bulwark against the current Covid-19 crisis. It so happens that rural India is the least affected by the coronavirus in this first wave of viral infection. Rural settlements allow for greater social distancing than clusters of persons of comparable economic status in urban areas. Most agrarian operations require more space than what factories do. Agricultural mandis are more spread out than any other bazaar. So, agriculture was the one sector of our economy that could keep going with relatively lesser risk despite the lockdown. Even when the guidelines did not permit it explicitly, the farmers managed to visit their fields and carry out the pre-harvesting and harvesting operations.
This year, the agrarian sector was much better placed to support India during the crisis. Luckily, coronavirus arrived when we are comfortably placed in terms of food security. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) is sitting on 87 million MT of foodgrain stock. This roughly translates into one sack of 100 kg rice or wheat for every single member of every family that has a ration card in the country. The stock should go up by another 25-30 million MT by the time the current wheat procurement comes to an end. This season happens to be that of a bumper rabi crop, thanks to heavy post-monsoon rains last year. So, we should expect generous addition to our stocks of wheat and easy availability of chana, mustard and masur daal besides seasonal vegetables and milk. The forecast of a normal monsoon comforts us that India can go on for months in the absence of any international trade.
This is the moment to recognise the value of food sovereignty, something we have come to take for granted. This is the moment to thank the farmers. No, you don’t need thali or taali for that. You just need to ensure that the farmers get a fair price for their produce. That would also be a smart economic move to kickstart the economy, because farmers are more likely to spend, rather than save, their earnings compared to an average urban consumer.
Throwing out the harvest
So far, this realisation has not dawned upon our policymakers. Instead of assisting the farmers in keeping the economic engine on, the Narendra Modi government has created needless and thoughtless hurdles for the farmers during the lockdown. Old habits, of treating rural India as a drag and a dustbin, persist. With this government, more than any other, farming and farmers are, at best, an afterthought.
PM Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on the 24 March did not so much as mention the farmer or note the fact that the lockdown coincided with the harvesting and the marketing season (he did so in his 14 April address). The first set of lockdown guidelines had no exemptions for these essential, ongoing operations. Stock market was exempted but agricultural markets were not. Some of these omissions were rectified in the subsequent guidelines issued on the 27 March and later.
The damage, however, was done.
Movement of perishable products (vegetables, fruits, eggs, chickens, milk, etc.) was stopped abruptly, inflicting massive and non-recoverable losses to the farmers. Poultry farming was already in a crisis due to fake news linking chickens to coronavirus. Lockdown was the last straw on its back. Even when the restrictions on the movement of agricultural goods were lifted on paper, the draconian ban continued on ground. Vegetable and food grain mandis continued closure. This resulted in some widely circulated images of the farmers throwing away grapes, mowing down the cabbage crop or pouring milk into canals.
This was not all. The closing down of pesticide and fertiliser shops left the farmers without supplies for pre-harvesting operations. The ban on inter-state movement left many harvesters stranded on the way from states like Madhya Pradesh to Haryana and Punjab. This accentuated the dependence on labour just when seasonal labour could not be brought in. Even though the farmers somehow managed to complete harvesting, they faced a marketing challenge. The procurement of wheat was delayed until after the 14 April and then after 20 April.
Many farmers could not wait and went for distress sale to local traders. Chana, mustard and even wheat was traded at levels much below the Minimum Support Price (MSP). While official wheat procurement has begun in Haryana and Punjab, marred by traders’ strike in Haryana, and hailstorm in Punjab, there are no convincing plans for purchasing other produce or doing effective procurement outside a few states.
Not too late to save farmers
Not for the first time, what promised to be a dream season is turning into a nightmare for Indian farmers. Not for the first time, this unfolding tragedy does not figure on the mindscape of policymakers. The relief package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had something for many other sections, but was a plain hoax for farmers. Sitharaman re-packaged the next installment of Kisan Samman Nidhi due in April anyway as relief bonanza for the farmers. The central government is yet to allow the Haryana government to pay a compensatory incentive to the farmers for the delay in procurement.
It is still not too late. Apparently, the Modi government is considering another economic package to alleviate peoples’ suffering during the lockdown. The government can salvage the situation by making the following announcements.
One, the damages suffered by farmers of vegetables, fruits and milk due to lockdown and by poultry farmers due to coronavirus fake news should be eligible for compensation under the National Disaster Relief Fund. The existing rates of compensation should be revised.
Two, crops that suffered a steep loss in price should be eligible for bhavantar or price deficit payment. The same benefit should be extended to all the products that have been sold in open market below the MSP.
Three, there should be an expanded procurement this year, with special attention to areas outside Haryana and Punjab and beyond wheat. The Modi government should announce a bonus on the current MSP to compensate the farmers for lockdown-related losses.
Four, all the active MNREGS cardholders should be paid compensatory wages for two weeks to make up for presumed loss in employment.
If these steps are not announced immediately, the strength of the agrarian sector could turn into a liability. Crores of migrant labourers returning to their villages during summer months to find no employment, little saving and dwindling food is a recipe for disaster, much bigger than the one coronavirus can inflict.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.