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COVID-19 Pushes Indian Agriculture Into Quarantine

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
migrant labourers
Migrants are the most affected community during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has impacted our economy badly. It has hit 0nly the secondary and tertiary sector, but also the ambitious dream of the Modi government of doubling the farmers’ income by 2020. Farmers are not just a segment or a sector; they are the ray of hope in this COVID-19 pandemic for every citizen, who is staying home, walking miles to reach home, or working day and night to treat the patients.

Food is the utmost necessity for the survival. Hence, every grain produced by farmers is equal to gold. When the first lockdown was announced on March 23, people rushed to markets to get the food grains as it was the first thing needed for staying at home for long period of time.

Shifts In The Indian Economy

Uttam Krishi, Madhyam vyapar kanistha naukri” (Supreme is farming; mediocre is trade and most lowly is service), the ancient philosophy of Indian economy is no less relevant now. Gandhi’s words are still true that “India lives in villages.” Agriculture is still the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s population. The contribution of agriculture and allied sector is 17.1%, industry sector is 29.6% and service sector is 54.3% (2016–17).

Growth in Gross Value Added (GVA) by agriculture and allied sectors stood at 2.1% in FY 2019–20 (Indian Agriculture And Allied Industries Report, March 2020). Barclays report (2014) had estimated that 35% urban population could contribute 70–75% of Indian GDP by 2020. Probably, it is not possible due to COVID-19 but the policies of the government has never been towards the majority population, which could contribute much more to the Indian economy.

Reimagining The Indian Economy

Aajeevika Bureau estimates 120 million people migrate from rural to urban space, and the biggest employers are construction sector (40 million), domestic work (20 million), textile (11 million), Brick kiln (10 million) and others like mining, transportation and agriculture. This population constitutes approx 11% of India’s population.

These migrants are especially from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odhisa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. They are “the GDP maker” of Indian economy for secondary and tertiary sector. They are the most affected population of the country due to COVID-19. They have started coming back to their home, the rural spaces. As per many reports, the GDP contribution of secondary and tertiary are drastically damaged while primary sector has got good production food grains in rabi season.

This reverse migration has resulted in unexpected/unpredicted burden on rural economy (especially on agriculture) due to no proper plan even of the consecutive policy makers of the government. Once again, COVID-19 has made us realise the ancient philosophy of Indian economy. Modi calls it ‘Aatmanirbharta’; Gandhi calls it ‘Swaraj’; Tagore calls it ‘completeness’; Vivekananda calls it ‘self- reliant’, and so-called Postmodern thinker may call it ‘Alternative to Development’.

Understanding The Current Scenario Of Agriculture In India

In India, agriculture gets three seasons for cultivation: Kharif, Rabi and Zaid, which starts in June-July and end in May- June respectively. If meat and milk industry is put aside, agriculture is a totally unorganised sector. This is the only sector in India, where new technology is the matter of controversy (Damodaran, 2016) and traditional technology are considered as backword.

One the one side, Green Revolution in 1970s and currently Genetic Modified (GM) crops are matter of controversies; on the other hand, we are trying to believe in organic farming, bio-dynamic farming and natural farming, which we were masters of. Over the period of time, we are standing on the middle path. This situation has given following adverse results to Indian agriculture due to unpredicted novel COVID-19:

Farmers During Lockdown
Farmers face shortage of labour during lockdown

Shortage of labour for harvesting rabi crops:

March and April are the harvesting months of rabi crop across India. Mahendra (IFPRI) writes that non-availability of migrant labour has interrupted harvesting activities of wheat (especially in Punjab, Haryana and western UP), pulses and summer paddy. Arpan Mondal and Somen Jena say that non-availability of labour resulted in delayed harvesting, which led to crop loss in terms of quality as well as quantity due to unexpected rainfall in this season. Arpan and Somen belong to West Midnapore of West Bengal. As per a report in The Wire, some of the farmers of Punjab and Haryana do not expect to get even the minimum support price for wheat.

Problem in selling of perishable products:

In one of the webinar discussions, Manas from Satara district of Maharashta said that they have got bumper production of onion and grapes. They are worried about export market and even inter-intrastate selling. They are dependent on the finger-counted merchant and they are purchasing such produce at their rates.

A similar situation is being faced by commercial vegetables farmers of Ranchi districts, Jharkhand. Videos and photos are getting viral on social media of vegetables farmers, who are leaving their produce on the field. Tonnes of tomatoes are perished on my field, adds Mohan Kirade from Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh.

The Economic Times, in article dated March 19, 2020, reports that the bulk demand of perishable items has fallen in hotels and restaurants, and also the price of agriculture commodities have dropped 20–25% post-COVID-19 outbreak. Floriculture has been the most affected sector of agriculture due to shutdown of events, hotels, and religious places. The flowers were damaged on the field due to total lockdown of supply-chain in this sector. Farmers did not get a single rupee from their farm, adds Suresh, a Ph.D. research scholar at RKMVU.

Worst affected animal husbandry sector:

The animal husbandry sector has been largely affected by the effects of COVID-19. There has been a sharp decline in the demand of chicken and meat since the outbreak as there have been various rumours amongst the people that the virus can spread through these products. As per a report, US, China, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, UK and India are affected significantly due to COVID-19 in dairy, meat, poultry and aquaculture.

In India, Holi is one of the largest festival of India, where meat consumption is very high. Due to COVID-19, the demand for poultry was negligible inspite of low rate of ₹25/poultry of 2–3 kg. News of poultry farmers killing their chickens and dumping them went viral. The demand for meat becomes high from Feb–June in India due to the marriage season; COVID-19 has affected it badly as well. Mahendra (IFPRI) says poultry farmers have badly affected due to misleading social media reports; the Economic Times reports the same in its article.

The demand for milk has fallen sharply due to the lockdown. Medha and Sudha dairies are procuring milk one time only in Ranchi.

High cost of agricultural inputs and lack of technological advances in farming have created new problems for the farmers.

Hike in agricultural input costs:

The cost of fertilizer and seeds have gone up due to drying up of supply-chain of agricultural inputs market. On April 16, we procured bleaching powder for fish farming at 1.5 times price. My father did not find the desired seeds of sweet corn for sowing in mid-April. The cost of animal feeds has risen due to lockdown in factories, and it lack of distribution.

Functional flaws:

The agricultural system is exposed. It has failed to support the saviour of the humankind: the farmer. The situation of agriculture is fully dependent on physical market, which seems to pay high price in pandemics like COVID-19.

Technological gap:

India prides itself for its Information Technology in the world, but it has failed in the agriculture sector. Government promises to have online platform for agricultural transactions, and at the same time, the district collector of Ranchi tweets on behalf of the farmers to sell tonnes of pumpkin. But there is no e-commerce platform, which maintains supply and demand in agriculture.

There are some e-platforms for the farmers to sell online, but farmers are hardly equipped to manage such sales.

Lack of capacity building:

In India, farmers still follow the tradition way of agricultural transactions. If the government launches any new schemes, they need to bring it at the farmers’ doorsteps. The agricultural government functionaries need to be activated at ground level. Farmers need to revive their own knowledge system of agriculture aligned with new technologies.

Lack of promotion of collectives:

India is far behind on promoting collectives in the agricultural sector, if we put aside few states like Maharashtra, etc. Lack of collectives has left the farmers in a vulnerable position in terms of inflow and outflow of agricultural goods and services.

Hanging with risk:

Indian agriculture has slowly started shifting to monocropping due to commercialization to get maximum profit. It also enhances the percentage of risk in terms of crop loss and price fixation. COVID-19 situation has found many such instances where there is either less market demand or production loss. Mix cropping could be the way to distribute risk in terms of both crop loss and incentive gain.

Knowledge dilemma:

Farmers are fully dependent on market for everything from seeds to pesticides, etc. Due to COVID-19, the market has stopped functioning. On the one hand, farmers are on the verge of losing their traditional knowledge system, and on other hand, they are not equipped with technology.

They do not have traditional seeds to grows, they hardly remember traditional processes of cultivation like pesticides control, etc. If the market does not supply inputs in such pandemic situations, whole agriculture sector will collapse.

The rain-fed state like Jharkhand grow staple food paddy in all three types of land.

Kharif on alarming edge

Lockdown has put kharif season in a position where fear spreads faster than COVID-19. Kharif season starts from mid-June. This is the season when maximum agriculture fields are cropped in India. The rain-fed state like Jharkhand grow staple food paddy in all three types of land.

India needs 250 lakh quintals of seed for the kharif season. Seed production ecosystem is a complex phenomenon, which lasts from March to May, reports Indra Shekhar Singh of The Hindu Businessline. According to him, the agri-input ecosystem has collapsed right now due to its dependency on packaging units and paper units.

Consequently, the cost of seeds would go up due to different factors, adding to the woes of farmers already unable to carry out financial transactions due to the lockdown. The fertilizer and pesticides industries are shut till May 31, 2020. Labours are busy returning to their homes. The production of agriculture inputs could be affected. This has put the agricultural community in panic.

I remember, by this time, paddy seeds used to come to the market; but this year, handful amount of seeds have reached the outlets. If the situation remains the same, the monopoly of seed companies would dominate the market, Indra Shekhar Singh worries in his article. This situation would get worse if the supply chain of other inputs like fertilizer and pesticides also dries up.

Where Does Agriculture Then Stand Right Now?

Both burden and expectation on agriculture have increased due to COVID-19 and reverse migration in the country. The most neglected sector has become top-priority sector for everyone in the country right now.

Due to COVID-19, farmers have faced, and are still facing, difficulties in terms of backward-forward linkages. The situation in livestock, horticulture and floriculture sectors is worse, as meat, fruit, vegetable and flower suppliers are unable to find markets due to restrictions in movement and fall in demand.

The supply chain of agriculture is not as smooth as it should be. Post-COVID-19 policy of the country will play a great role in defining Indian agriculture, where still more than 50% workforce is employed.

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