India is home to 140 million farm households and approximately 120 million smallholder farmers who contribute close to 40 percent of the country’s grain production and more than 50 percent of its fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, and other crops. A significant section of the global share such as wheat and rice comes from India where almost half of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood.
Now for a second, keeping the ruthless challenges this sector has been experiencing aside, reports show that low rainfall, price volatility, and rising debts are the three primary risks this sector grapples with year after year. COVID-19 brought along a major challenge in the form of domestic and international travel restrictions which created mutants in the form of labor scarcity and exports.
Labour scarcity and lockdown have deeply affected farmers in India
Now before I plunge into the story of the third sector of this series, we need to be introduced to both sides of this imbalance: the first being the farmers and the second, the Government.
Now, what did the government do when the knee-jerk reaction of the mass exodus of migrant labor commenced in March 2020?
The Indian Finance Ministry declared a welfare package of INR 1.7 trillion aiming to protect the vulnerable sections of the society from any adverse impacts that might tag along with the Coronavirus pandemic. The announcement, however, contained an advance release of INR 2000 to bank accounts of farmers as income support under the PM-KISAN scheme.
The government also went ahead and raised the wage rate for workers engaged under the NREGA scheme. Additional grain allotments along with cash and food assistance were announced to registered beneficiaries, mostly migrant workers via the PM CARES (Prime Minister Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) fund.
How much were these promises actually materialized? Well, there’s no data or claim on the same so far. What’s definitely visible though are the issues that the farming economy has been battling with since the very first wave of this ‘Mahamari (pandemic)’.
The nationwide lockdown has begun at a very unfortunate time for farmers as it was the harvest season for the winter crop – rabi. Mass migration of laborers coupled with domestic restrictions led to the harvesting season to go completely off-balance which brought in major liquidity issues. Additionally, smallholder farmers have not been able to harvest their bumper crops of cereal and oilseed with the stocks being abandoned in certain areas.
The labor scarcity also affected the supporting infrastructure in and around the agricultural sector with storage units going understaffed. Underdevelopment of irrigation equipment has resulted due to shackled operations in the manufacturing sector, with irrigation-relation manufacturing currently operating at 30 percent of its potential capacity.
Another very important sector that has been largely hit is the transportation sector. Movement of crops has completely stalled across state borders which have consequently affected their sale. If we add the reduction in the manufacturing of equipment, the plate that finally gets served to you will hardly suffice even 10 percent of the population relying on this sector for their day-to-day activities.
The irony in this overall picture lies in the fact that, as per report estimates, even though the food banks of India had more than three times the minimum operational buffer, supply, and most importantly, those rotted due to inaccessibility.
Several ground-level pieces of research have revealed an urgent requirement to mitigate labor scarcity issues. To begin with, the amount of labor available at hand should be put to use with a basic endowment of unemployment allowances with maximum labor being directed to the most critical areas given how important the harvesting season is.
Mechanization of Farming needs to be delved deeper into, at least for critical sowing and harvesting operations to ensure similar risks as these are minimized.
Adding on to the dismay associated with domestic issues, currently, around half a million tonnes of Indian rice is locked up in the supply chains with perishable crops not being transported at all in fear of deterioration in delayed transit. Agricultural experts say approximately $40 billion worth of produce is severely affected in this scenario.
Despite the economic activity being up and running, the scenario within the farming economy is still looming. The Centre and states must step up and boost the primary source of livelihood in India.
This article was originally published on ScrollStack
Feature image is for representational purposes only.