Lockdown’s Impact on Harvesting

  • Usually, 90% of the wheat in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana is harvested using combine harvester machines. But with physical distancing norms in place now, for many small farmers, that system has been thrown out of gear as they can’t jointly hire the machine and the produce must be brought to the mandis through commission agents so that people don’t congregate.
  • The major worry is how to store this harvested produce during this extended period.
  • Unfortunately the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast says a western disturbance is likely to affect the western Himalayan region, which could bring scattered rain and thunder showers over the region on April 17 and 18. Standing crops and harvest stored in the open could face widespread damage.
  • The problem may be more acute for those selling perishable crops such as fruits and vegetables.
  • The government in its initial order did not specify fruit transport as an essential service. There was confusion. It led to the destruction of fruit crop all over Maharashtra.
  • The impact of this virus is much bigger than any drought.

Wheat harvest in India during these tough times in different regions

  • Wheat is the major rabi crop in the winter farming season in India, and the only one bought by government agencies at the pre-set minimum support price (MSP).
  • In western States such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and even Rajasthan, warmer weather means that the wheat harvest was already under way when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, and is now largely over.
  • However, the bulk of the country’s wheat is grown in Punjab and Haryana, an area known as the bread basket of India. The prolonged winter delayed the maturing of the grain and pushed harvesting dates by at least a week.
  • Punjab is expecting a bumper wheat harvest crop this season with production likely to touch 182 lakh tonnes.
  • The cash credit limit of ₹22,900 crore has already been approved by the Centre to ensure prompt and seamless procurement operations in the State.

What is being done to help?

  • The long list was presented to the States, via video conferencing due to the lockdown, along with another long list of actions taken by the Centre to facilitate agricultural activity.
  • All agricultural work  was exempted from lockdown restrictions.
  • Mandis can function with at least 50% of their workforce. Although migrant labour may have left, local labour is available, so there is no need to panic. Anyway, most Punjabi farmers use machines for harvesting.
  • To ensure that farmers get their monetary return at the earliest, the amendment of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act has been notified to ensure that farmers are paid electronically through commission agents within 48 hours after the produce is lifted.

The coupon system

  • With each coupon a farmer will be entitled to bring one trolley of about 50 to 70 quintals of wheat.
  • A farmer will be entitled to take multiple coupons each day or on different days depending on space in the purchase centre in order to avoid rush in the mandis.
  • As one coupon only allows sale of 50 quintals, it will be a difficult task for farmers with big landholdings to sell their produce.
  • Once a farmer uses up the given coupon, until the next coupon is given, the harvest will be out in the open due to lack of storage facilities and face risks. Also, fire incidents during the harvesting season usually go up, which is a major concern for crop safety.

The policy-implementation gap

  • The Centre announced a slew of relaxations and support measures for agriculture in the first two weeks of the lockdown.
  • All agricultural and horticultural activities, markets, labour and transport were supposed to be exempt from lockdown restrictions.
  • Subsidies on crop loans were extended for late repayment. States were asked to relax regulations and allow direct purchases by bulk buyers and retailers.
  • The digitally connected e-NAM marketplace system was touted, along with a logistics module connecting farmers and traders to a network of almost 8 lakh trucks and 2 lakh transporters.
  • The Railways introduced 67 routes for perishable produce. An “Agri-Transport” Call Centre was set up to handle transport issues.
  • However, as farmers from different parts of the country reported, many of these policies were not uniformly implemented on the ground, especially in the first few weeks.
  • In many cases, the Centre’s instructions have not percolated down to District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police, resulting in the harassment of farmers and agricultural traders, and supply chain disruptions

Conclusion

  • The lockdown has proved one thing: agriculture is truly the backbone of the Indian economy. Coronavirus or not, farm production goes on because the demand for food will always be there.
  • But the cost to the farmer, to agricultural workers, is not taken into account in that process.
  • Also, this reverse migration proves that they were actually agricultural refugees, who left for the cities only because they could not make a living in the fields
  • Everyone is talking about the need to invest in public health once the COVID-19 crisis is over. Our farmers, agricultural workers are also front line workers during this time and they also deserve attention. If we can invest in agriculture and overhaul it so it is profitable, then we will have actually learned something from this crisis.
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