Lochan Sharma & Manish Kumar Sharma
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus, spreading primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes and is not an air borne disease, clarified WHO recently. On March 11, 2020, ‘deeply concerned’ World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of coronavirus as ‘pandemic’, pushing the threat beyond a global health emergency. With more than 1.1 million coronavirus cases across the globe, and 61,144 (as reported on April 04, 2020) death cases until date, international, national and state governments are taking respective stringent measures to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
Governments across the globe have initiated a lockdown until a perpetual improvement is discerned in the number of new cases. The Indian government, shutting down all major industries, commercial and private establishments, has enforced similar restrictions and a full-fledged lockdown. However, essential services such as groceries, banks, ATMs, gas stations, telecommunications, fire services, healthcare and e-commerce remain operational. Statements from the finance minister, Britannia industries, railway ministry and economists are quite relieving but uncertainty undertones their assurances. Occurring in the crucial phase of the harvest season, the lockdown will inevitably affect agriculture sector drastically and subsequently influence lives of people dependent on agriculture and farming activities.
This article elicits the case of a farmer from a village in Sonipat (Haryana), his observations on lockdown and the consequent distress. The process of the harvest in maturity, handling, cleaning, sorting, packing, marketing, and selling it to majority households of this country and its export is a long and continuous process entailing involvement of daily wagers and labourers at different steps accordingly. However, the lockdown has brought this process and its elements to a compromise. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of 1.7 lakh crore fund allocation for poor and vulnerable, failed to portray a clear picture on how it would be disbursed, sweeping herself on the safer side.
In Haryana, before the Baisakhi episode, there are two types of crops ready for harvest: first being the vegetable crop, and the second being the wheat crop. For now, wheat crop is out of risks, because it has one more month for its full-fledged harvest and even if the harvesting is done during lockdown, the wheat could be stored in godowns and sold on later when required within a considerable period of time. On the other hand, vegetable crops such as bitter gourd (Karela), ladyfinger (bhindi), bottle gourd (ghiya, tori) observe a longer and constant cycle of harvest and sale. For instance if the vegetable is ripe today, it is taken off and this process is repeated on alternate days. This seasonal vegetable crop is cultivated for quite a few cycles. Nevertheless, it demands the necessary labour to sow, tend and harvest. Furthermore, this harvest also needs to be sold to the market as and when it is taken off the plant; otherwise, there is a significant chance that it might decay and this loss will have to be borne by the farmer himself. The harvest goes to either the district sabzi mandi or the main Delhi Azadpur sabzi mandi. The latter stands preferable: firstly, because of full guarantee of the produce being sold with less or no wastage, secondly, the profit is higher, and thirdly, this is the biggest vegetable market of India.
Let us now see how this lockdown affects several stages of farm to food:
1. Farm to mandi
Restricted Movement: Movement across state borders has become very restricted due to the lockdown. In the context of Haryana-Delhi farm produce, this means that the harvest-laden vehicles are not freely permitted across borders. Considering this ban, the Delhi government has mandated a pass-based entry. Even then, the sale of commodities is bound to see a sharp decline. In the pre-lockdown period, people from across the states and neighbouring regions would constantly come to this market for purchasing items in bulk at cheaper rates, and hence the market used to be over-crowded. But, thanks to this lockdown, fewer people are come to the Azadpur mandi now.
New Timings of the Mandi: On a regular basis, farmers used to drop down their harvest multiple times, at any hour of the day. As reported by a farmer, when the harvest is fresh, one loaded truck would go, drop down the harvest and return and in the peak harvest time, the truck would make at least three similar rounds daily. However, during this lockdown, Azadpur mandi undergoes its maximum sale from 2am early morning until 8 am. After 8am, the police restricts any form of unloading and selling, except for those who have the ‘pass’. Most of the supply is sold by then, and there is roughly 10% chance that it would be sold after this time bracket. Under the new timings, those who have multiple vehicles will manage to supply all their harvest to the market and those who take rounds of supply would endure the most of lockdown misfortune.
Daily wage Labourers fleeing back: The daily wage earners, who help with loading/unloading of food commodities and other market-related works are prohibited from entering the market zone. Their absence not only discomforts the farmers, but also raises concerns about their livelihood getting affected due to the lockdown. This situation would worsen as the time passes and the amount of harvest piles up. Moreover, with lack of political will and support to poor section of society these labourers have fled back home, with the desire to stay at their home, than suffering daily victimisation.
Distress: Prof, Sudhir Pawar (former member of Planning Commission) stated that, ‘hailstorms, unseasonal rains and squalls have already damaged 30% crops and now came the lockdown; if crops are left in the field they would wither away. Though government has announced a relief package, God knows when it would reach the farmers’. Panic and fear mongering through social media, friends and relatives is frightening for farmers. A case from a nearby village was observed wherein a farmer had abandoned their farm of radish, contemplating that if there is no good sale and profit over harvest, it is better to not invest than to face the loss. Most of the resources like manure, fertilisers, seeds, pesticides and equipment are unavailable to continue farming practices. This fear would soon lead to agricultural distress at a larger level, and therefore economic depression. A similar instance was reported of a farmer in Karnataka dumping around three tones of tomato produce in lake after being frustrated with absence of elected representatives during this crisis. Another report is from Chindwara, MP where the harvest was enormous during the lockdown, but disappointed farmers could not take it out of the district and had to sell it for free to the social workers helping the poor and vulnerable.
2. Mandi to vendor
Brutal Policing: Oftentimes, the unjustified drama of the police beating up any person roaming on the road creates an undesirable havoc. The police rarely asks for proof, rather sees a person roaming and beats them up as a means to impart brutal lessons against the lockdown violation. In this context, the vegetable vendors who sit in the sabzi mandi, or stand roadside are experiencing this tension. This really questions the way in which a daily wage earner like a vegetable vendor could earn their livelihood and the manner in which it could affect their wellbeing, by creating unnecessary fear and panic. Due to limited purchasers and sellers, with usual availability of vegetables, we have already seen a 30% rise in the mandi prices.
3. Vendor to food
While several districts’ sabzi mandis have been shut down, Azadpur sabzi mandi, Delhi is still open. The open call is to the zamindars to either sell their harvest to the local shops and vendors, like Reliance, Easyday stores etc. or sell it by themselves. But in this pandemic, direct selling is a way of spreading the virus, and is a risk to vendors themselves, hence strict actions are being taken in this regard. Most of the vegetable vendors have also returned to their villages or hometowns, fearing the misfortune of the pandemic. Moreover, the produce that had direct association with food outlets and restaurants would suffer a severe mar under this lockdown. The outlets being shut down for indefinite time would completely affect the sale of these shops, and a huge amount of harvest would be wasted.
This article is a brief overview of the grievous predicaments that our farmer friends are going through under the extended lockdown, triggering the drastic impact over rabi crops like mustard, wheat, pulses, paddy etc., across different states like MP, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh. The consequences are also pragmatic in poultry, fishery industries and could be a different subject of exploration.
The former agricultural secretary pointed out that even for providing additional food grain through PDS systems, the movement of grains, during and after lockdown, from godowns to fair price shops would take weeks. A similar complaint was filed from FCI officials, for not being included in the essential services list. They are facing problems in Punjab and Haryana where the food stock is already piling up. Amid this lockdown, the concern of people is genuine, and the struggle of poor farmer is unpretentious. The state and the central government have not yet taken a clear stance on tackling these issues, or in providing a systematic and strategized allocation of funds and schemes and loan sanctions. A new thought process with futuristic plan is required to counter the farmer distress.
Lochan Sharma is a PhD Scholar, CSMCH, JNU, Delhi.
Manish Kumar Sharma is a Software Engineer working with Google, UK.