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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

COVID Crisis and Cultivation: Looming Agrarian Disaster in India

Saturday 23 May 2020

by Annapurna and Navneet Sharma

“Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not – secretly, at least – submitting to science?” — Arundhati Roy

The covid -19 and ensuing crisis, in all domains of human life whether social, political or economic is going to be a juncture where the life, empathy, development and harmony will also be studied in pre and post covid phases. This humongous crisis will also have its impact on the basic requirements for life, food and water. Food and hunger will mean different in post covid world. Similarly, running water and its availability to wash hands frequently to combat corona spread will also be seen differently post this pandemic. The lockdown and it’s essentially elitist nature is going to affect the idea of food, food production and its distribution and the severest impact will be borne by farmers. The food growers in our country may get more dis-enchanted with farming or may commit suicide in more numbers. This disaster and India’s preparation or rather no preparation will write a new chapter on deprivation in India and unfortunately farmers will be the centre piece in this. In this article we are going to focus on how this covid spring will be a bane for farming and cultivators and we also dread to imagine how it will influence the future of agricultural production consumption and distribution in India.

It has been no less than a miracle that the farmers in India produce bumper harvest despite the utter laggard of the system of the distribution and consumption but it is only the ‘science’ of agriculture which can uplift the situation of the farmer the most. It is the time of year when there is a harvest ready to be reaped and further processed and sold. It is when the field is prepared for the next crop. The ‘mandis’ brim with the harvest and is the time to reap money as a reward for the hard labour which the farmer has put in through the year. But this covid - 19 and the consequential lockdown will have a different kind of influence on agriculture and farmers and will also create new domains for deprivation.

It is ironical that India, a ‘Krishi Pradhan’ nation, wherein agriculture contributes seventy five percent of the country’s GDP. The two-third population of the country with farming as a profession interwoven into their lifelines are not able to successfully challenge the pandemic whose only solution is going organic. Farmers always strive hard over whatever the available resources are available with them to get a higher yield from last year in a hope for a better future. But thanks to covid, the farmer is struggling hard for even getting the half of the investment they made while growing the crop.
Vagaries of vegetable farming

There are vagaries of vegetable production. For diversification and reaping more benefits, a farmer grows vegetables, but to their dismay, if their crop ever survives long to reach mandi, either the demand of that vegetable plummets or supply is more in respect to demand. This year is no different. The overall vegetable production this year is estimated to be on a significant rise from 183 million tonnes in 2018-19 to 188 million tonnes in 2019-20. The raised production of vegetables this year would obviously have incurred more labour more money and more hopes. Though in normal days it would have been a great achievement but it has became a problem for the growers for lack of sale, supply and transportation due to covid lockdown.

There are estimated increases in the production of potato and tomato from 50 to 52 million tonnes and from 19 to 19.32 million tonnes respectively this year as compared to previous year. Tomato is being sold at 2 rupee per kg at farmers end while in metros people are paying 60 rupees for a kg of tomato which only reflects the uneven distribution and transportation, benefiting neither the producer not the consumer but the middleman. Onion grown in Maharashtra has lost its market either for fear of covid or because of the lock down. The production of Onion was estimated to rise above 24 million tonnes compared to 23 million tonnes in 2018-19. Last year the prices of onions skyrocketed up to 160 rupees per kg and this year it crashed to 20 rupees per kg in Maharashtra. One can imagine the whole sale rates for onion and what farmers would be getting for their produce. Onion still continues to make eyes teary as price is raised in other states while farmer is not able to access the mandi.

Cabbage and cauliflower have the same fate being sold at 1rupee for a kg in mandis. Broccolis being sold at 10 rupees per kg, for pea growers, no markets are there after covid cases were reported from Azadpur mandi - the biggest mandi of Asia. The vanished demand from restaurants, catering firms, hotels, public gatherings has seen the prices plummeting. Though the raised demand of super foods like garlic and ginger could not help the growers make any profit but losses fall in their share only. The rumours claiming their origin from World Health Organization claimed that the cabbage consumption has been forbidden for their content of covid virus. And that vegetable intake ensures the maximum stay of the virus in the body. Traders have stopped taking calls from cabbage growers. Farmers had to cull the whole cabbage crop in the field itself for getting no takers for their produce.

The vegetable produce is seasonal and cannot be stored for long either due to their high perishable nature or costly storage mechanism and no access to it. The farmers even who are out of the debt net have to sell their produce at lower prices or simply have to throw it on the street or feed it to their cattle. This cash-strapped farmer will be pulled into the debt net and then the sordid story of deprivation and death will haunt the farmer again.

Fruition of fruits

Fruit farmers have no different story to tell. This year due to favourable weather conditions, farmers are expecting a bumper mango crop after two consecutive years of losses up to fifty percent. In such circumstances, heavy losses even after a bumper produce are estimated for this ‘King of fruits’ too as there is no export, no processing and no transport. At the peak season for mango, as per APMC reports, one lakh boxes are received everyday and the export estimates to about forty percent of the total produce. This covid story is all set to make the mango market suffer too. Hence, sharp fall in prices of fruits like mango and banana that is, which were being sold at six rupees per kg a week ago. Banana harvest commences from March and continues till august. The Jalgaon bananas are mainly exported to Gulf countries, but during this crisis, traders are not ready to give more than four rupees for a dozen of banana. Farmers cannot hold it back owing to its very high perishability. All eating joints, fruit juice vendors, restaurants, hotels, commercial, social and religious places being in standstill or locked down have crashed the fruit consumption. It is unfortunate that farmers growing fruits cannot see the fruition of their hard work into rich dividends. Fruits like pomegranate, grapes and banana which are major produce from Maharashtra have got stuck as the lockdown came into effect. A young farmer committed suicide just after the day he reported a snap in the supply chain. Being the first case in the row, we hope not to hear any more deaths due to distress.

With the apple season arriving, the losses are to get manifolds as getting right prices and a proper sale of their produce is the biggest challenge for apple growers. As apple travels long distances and this is a preferred fruit and readily consumed fruit year round in both upper and upper middle class in India. The proverb ‘An apple a day keeps doctor away’ has made people from even lower middle class people preferring it over other seasonally available fruits in the market. To arrange the packaging material for apple packing and their supply is a big challenge in front of the growers. Crops like grapes, guava and strawberry are very remunerative crops for farmers but they are being fed to cattle for being perishable. Grapes in a bumper crop are a waste as there is no transportation and no chemicals and resources for their processing into raisins. Similar being the case for all such fruits. A calibrated approach on lifting the interstate labour movement is necessary for preventing further losses in seasonal fruits.

Neither Oil nor Grain

Wheat and oilseeds farmers cannot have a sigh of relief. The record production of 326 million tonnes of food grains and oilseeds is waiting for harvest in the fields. Because of the lockdown, no labour is available and neither transport nor mandi. Desperate farmers have to sell the Mustard at a price as low as thirty four rupees per kg while Chick pea in Maharashtra is being sold at twenty five rupees per kg, which is very lower than the government announced procurement prices. Farmers are asked to hold the harvest and to store the harvest with them till 20th April. But majority of the farmers in India are resource poor. They have to vacate the field for the next crop. They do not have storage facility for such huge quantities and above all there is a threat of sudden spell of hail storm and rains if the produce is left in the field or in open. The procurement of seeds for next crop is yet another question and no one knows from whom to seek the answer. The impact is yet to come to picture say in November - December when the kharif sowing reports will be generated. The lack of resources and funds for next sowing and even the inability to sustain life and food for self and family makes farming distressful occupation.

Agricultural economy has been badly hit by the pandemic. India has been first in exporting Cashew, dairy and spices and second in food grains and horticultural produce, but despite increased production, the unavailability of labour and transport has marred the process of it’s export, sale and consumption. Though the government has taken some steps as it could realize the urgency for requirement of transport for perishables and has prioritized their smooth flow but losses would be estimated in long run but the further policies need to be worked out for the free movement of agricultural produce and food.

Agriculture and food industry is the largely impacted. The crash in food processing industry is experienced because of the lack of labour and supply chains. Crashing farm gate prices for export oriented food like mango, pomegranate, grapes and sea food have put the sector in deep distress. The crash of major export items like tea, spices, meat, mango which have a major market in Europe, China, US have created a great stress to the people associated with export of such items.

Unto the blossoms

The tale of sorrow does not end here. Floriculture being the worst hit amongst all farming sectors amidst lockdown. The zero returns on huge investments have ruined the florists. It does not take only water for the flowers to bloom. Growers are seen feeding their colourful blooms, pink desi roses, carnation, jasmine, marigold to cattle, dumping them in waste pits, making compost of them. Flowers are rotting and stinking as they don’t enjoy the status of essentials in the lockdown. The labour intensive process of harvest is crucial as leaving the flowers on plant eventually impacts the productivity of the plant and it takes at least six months to prepare a new productive plant. There are many villages in Bengaluru, Ujjain, Chennai, Pune and many other such parts of country that are solely dependent on floriculture have incurred huge losses. Farmers who expected a bountiful jasmine crop with forty percent increase in production this year from last year whose production was to commence from mid march have suffered a great loss. Jasmine crop continues for three to four months starting from march and under current scenario this season, the crop is lost. Some exotic flowers like lilies, gerberas, miniature roses which can be cold stored for a month, too shall not be of much use as immediately after the lockdown is raised, no social, religious or other events will commence. Losses to floriculture sector in one month have been estimated more than 250 crore rupees. In Haryana a bumper lily crop was grown by a farmer for the upcoming marriages season is now under dilemma that whether what to do with the beautiful crop in the green house, as he is left with the only option to feed it to the cattle. While the nation’s hues and cries amidst lockdown, all religious places are closed, no religious gatherings, no social function mark a severe impact on the floriculture sector.

Indian Floriculture industry estimated worth 188.7 billion in 2019. Flowers being an integral part of Indian lives and are consumed for various purposes ranging from social to aesthetic and religious. Growing western influences have given it a regular market. The lockdown has brought every such opportunity to an end. Karnataka being the leading state around 30000 hectare area under flowers, followed by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Delhi and Haryana.

Cotton cultivation always has its own share of pain. This only crop of Vidarbha, is now dependent on MSP only as exports and private buyers are not among the players this year. China contributing a major purchase will not be importing cotton from India this season. The ‘Prime Minister Kisan Scheme’ has offered an advance payment of 2000 rupees along with a moratorium on loan repayments all this seems insufficient in such circumstances.

Rumours raise the toll. As the talk of consumption of garlic and turmeric raising the immunity levels against corona, haunts the galleries of social media, it may have or have not hiked the profit of the growers but the one that has brought the existence of many poultry farms under threat, had nothing to do with the pandemic. An estimate says that the poultry farms with 1500 birds will vanish from the market. No wonder that poultry farm owners are bound to cull their birds for not having enough to feed them till this indefinite lockdown continues. Losses are estimated above 1000 crores in this sector since last one month. On the other hand, feed prices are anyway falling in such areas where the stocks are stuck due to lack of transport for the lockdown. Soon after this pandemic came to news, people stopped eating animal food. More than half of the total maize and soybean produced in the country in consumed by the poultry sector. Even after FSSAI’s report that non vegetarian food sources have no proof of spreading the disease and that the Government of India has listed animal food under the essential items category still the fate of the poultry farmers has not changed. In some states still sale of animal food is banned.

Dairy too is no exception. As unlike crops which yield twice a year, cattle being a regular source of income for about seventy million rural households, they need a daily regular market which also assures their feed. Last year feed prices had a hike in from 900 to 1300 rupees per bag at once, but since March, the falling milk prices and scarcity of feed has made it even worse for the farmer to meet ends. On consumption front too, the situation is worsened with no demands from restaurants, hotels, catering industry, no demands for sweets and milk products. Farmers are compelled to throw hundreds of litres of milk in canals along with selling it for least.

In rural households, death has many faces. Corona may be only a new addition with hunger, debt and disease. Earlier this year like every year repeated hail storms untimed rains ruined the crops. For the crops insurance formalities the assessment was awaited and lockdown came upon suddenly. Now till this lockdown clears nothing would be left on the field to be assessed.

Amidst hues and cries of malnutrition because of a majority of population not being able to arrange the 400 grams per day recommended dose of vegetables and fruits per individual per day, still 30 percent of the horticultural produce is wasted for adequate storage and processing facilities. The need of cold storage facilities has always been talk of the table but it is always realized when it is too late. The required cold storage capacity is estimated at 350 lakh tonnes while it is still at 226.7 lakh tonnes of which sixty percent is occupied by potato alone. Still the farmers do not get the right price for their produce and situations for other vegetables are even worse. In this rising heat, the farmers have nowhere to store the perishables and thus have to dump it either on roadsides or to feed it to cattle. Doubling farmers’ income shall remain a myth until the produce saved from spoilage and is converted into cash. Striving hard to meet their regular domestic needs and to pay their dues, they seem to be the sole bearer of the distress.

Conclusion

Indian farmer seems to lurch from one crisis to another. The outlook has always been consumer centric. With causes deep rooted and the government even after making genuine efforts fail to bring it at par. The outbreak of this pandemic has an adverse impact over everything, be it export, import or manufacturing but the worst hit remains the Agriculture.

This Corona crisis could have been faced more bravely had we organised and re-structured the agricultural production, distribution and consumption in the country; had we organized it properly we would have not seen the crisis of migrant labour and labourers because it was only when local employment and agricultural commerce could not support people, they tend to migrate to other places. The crisis reflects the story of Kisan becoming Kisan and landless Kisan to a labourer (mazdoor). This pandemic asks us and the nation-state, to re-chart our priorities and as ’Krishi Pradhan Desh’ or else we will not be able to survive the tali- thali antics as thalis will remain empty and there will be no energy to clap or we need to rewrite ’karma-phal’ and Jai Vijnyan Jai Kisan, narrative to see that the sickle does not become blunt enough to seek its survival in ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ only.

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Annapurna, PhD, is a freelance consultant and an activist for women SHGs. She has received her doctoral degree in Horticulture from Banaras Hindu University.
Navneet Sharma, PhD, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at navneetsharma29[at]gmail.com

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