The agriculture sector registered growth despite the pandemic’s impact; now it’s time for the government to support it.
Agriculture is considered the backbone of any country’s economics and plays an important role in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a nation, particularly India, where the agrarian sector contributes a substantial share. In India, agriculture is one of the primary sectors, considering a large part of the country’s population is directly or indirectly linked with the rural economy. Although not as much as the population working in the industrial sector, the agriculture sector also does generate substantial employment.
Covid-19 impacted almost all the economy-booster sectors, and agriculture was one of the worst-affected areas. The inevitable lockdowns further derailed economic schedules, planning, the education sector and, of course, the agriculture sector for various factors. Yet, due to certain reasons, agriculture did manage to recover quickly from this impact and emerged as one of the few sectors that registered growth.
The agriculture sector contributes about 17% to India’s GDP. The overall GDP witnessed a 23.9% decline and 7.3% shrink in the April-June quarter of the fiscal year 2020-2021. Despite issues such as broken supply chains, scanty rainfall and increased input costs, with Covid-19 adding up to all these woes, the agriculture sector recorded a growth of 3.4% Gross Value Added (GVA) in the first quarter of 2020-21 as compared to that of 2019-20.
The agriculture sector has added Rs 14,815 crore in the first three months, a new record of 15.2% of the overall economic growth. Due to this, agriculture has attracted huge private investment. A slight positive impact of Covid-19, however, has been the improved quality of the air and water, as revealed by various environmental indicators.
The journey of this GVA growth has not been easy for the agriculture sector. The country-wide lockdown, last year, came at a terrible time for farmers. It was the harvesting season and sowing period for wheat (Rabi crop) and rice (Kharif crop). The lockdown created a shortage of labour as well as farm equipment. Availability of labour required for harvesting wheat and paddy sowing emerged as a major challenge for many farmers. The demand was high but the manpower availability was significantly low because migrant labour had started moving back to their native places aiming to be with their families at such difficult and scary times.
In 2020, an estimated 10 million migrant workers or labourers returned to their native places after the nationwide lockdown was imposed. Due to an acute shortage of labour, there was a considerable shift towards direct seeding of rice as compared to transplanting, with an aim to reduce the expenditure as well as water consumption. The unavailability of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides further added to the problems. That resulted in lower production.
As the second wave began to emerge, the government’s introduction of three contentious farm legislation last year was seen as rubbing salt on farmers’ wounds. Agriculture is one of the only sectors that survived the Covid-19 pandemic, to some extent. The introduction of the agricultural reform bills (as the union government claims these to be) during the pandemic played a crucial role. Farmers became psychologically insecure due to the farm bills. Farmers believe the three Bills are making them vulnerable to corporate exploitation. It has been nine months since the farmers have hit the roads and their agitation seeking a roll-back of the three central farm legislation continues.
At the onset of the crisis, the food supply chains were strained as many countries imposed restrictions on the movement of goods and people across and within borders. The restrictions still continue in certain categories. As a result, the challenge was not the availability of food but also accessibility.
The problems during Covid-19 in agriculture are primarily related to: (a) Labour availability (b) Marketing (c) Transportation availability as well for the operation of markets (d) Purchasing essentials (Pesticides, weedicides, pumps etc.) (e) Price rise of seeds and fertilisers (f) floods that caused significant damage to crops in some states, and (g) Locust attack.
The poor and hapless sections of society continue to be the worst hit in any disaster or in a pandemic. Around 85% of the Indian farm households comprise small and marginal farmers and have a significant part of the population as landless farm labourers. Welfare measures to contain any damage from Covid-19 are definitely going to help them recover.
The focus of the government in this situation must be to protect the lives of every citizen, but at the same time ensuring that farmers who feed the entire nation (Annadaata), are also duly protected. People whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture and allied activities lost their income opportunities from informal employment during this lockdown period, have to be provided with alternative avenues such as substantial financial aid till the economy gets back to the scale where it was during pre-Covid times.
Writers: Sumedha Sharma and Mohit Kumar Ashnani