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Agriculture: Year Of Farmers?

Procurement and storage problems may spoil the thrill of a good winter crop for farmers this year

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The lockdown on movement and activities in force in most parts of India and albeit, the world, has nearly brought life to a standstill, but mother nature has her own rule book. So, flowers continue to bloom, vegetables still grow and fruits ripen in the orchards. Food being essential for subsistence, both governments and multilateral agencies have gone all out to ensure that production, distribution and exports of food, be it agricultural, horticultural or aquaculture produce, remain undisturbed.

 Economists and experts on agriculture like Siraj Husssain (a former Agriculture Secretary in the Government of India) who expect to see agriculture’s contribution to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) spring up amidst the gloom that pervades manufacturing and services, do not quite have their heads in the cloud, therefore. For, the relative edge over other sectors of the economy comes amidst a bumper harvest of Rabi crops. With a good monsoon and an equally good summer (Kharif) crop, farmers in India should logically have been dancing with joy, but are they? 

Higher share in GDP

“Agriculture will be the only sector that will positively contribute to the GDP in FY 2020-21,” opines Siraj Hussain. His forecast is buttressed by information emanating from agrarian states like Uttar Pradesh, where agriculture is habitually a greater contributor to the state GDP than manufacturing or services.

 Additional Chief Secretary of the Uttar Pradesh government, Awanish Kumar Awasthi, says that the year gone by was the first in many years when cultivation went well in the entire state and farms did not face a shortage of labour. Awasthi emphasises that efforts were on in the state to procure the Rabi harvest (winter crops) directly from farmers and to ensure that their price realisation is equivalent to the minimum support price (MSP) assured by the central government. He points out that a substantial part of the state’s dairy milk production, exceeding 37 lakh litres a day, was being distributed around it. 

A huge buffer stock of 60 million tonne allowed the Union government to take massive measures like providing 15 kilogrammes of grains to around 800 million people across the nation. Yet, the relief does not spread optimism through the farming community. How long will the government feed such a huge segment of the population and the urban workforce that returned to the countryside, wonders Pushpendra Singh, President of the Kisan Shakti Sangh. 

The first and massive Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package announced by the Indian government was focussed on farmers, the rural workforce and the urban poor.  The Union government ensured cash transfer to vulnerable sections of society during the period of the lockdown and instalments of the Rs 6,000 promised to small farmers annually in the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM KISAN). State governments have maintained supplies of free pulses, grains and cereals for the hapless, including migrant workers in transit, living in shelters. 

The free distribution of grains and pulses has been facilitated by not only the enormous stocks in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns but also a bountiful winter crop. It should have been the year of the farmer, but it is not, because the lockdown also kept rural folk who look for employment in the cities between harvests away from the farm fields.

 Reports have poured in from the states of harvests of wheat and vegetables spoiling in the fields in the absence of farmhands to harvest them. 

Spoiling harvest

In Maharashtra, more than 60 per cent of the cotton produced by millions of farmers do not qualify for state-sponsored procurement. The farmers, who are unable to sell the cotton now, are forced to store huge stockpiles of it in their homes. According to Anil Singh Ghanwat, President of the Shetkari Sangthna (Joshi) these cotton piles are now beginning to attract pests, making it difficult for the farmers to live in their own homes. 

Ghanwat also talks of the plight of grape farmers in Maharashtra.  “Grapes have given good remunerative prices to farmers during early harvest and farmers invested in the crop, expecting to profit further,” he says. “Grape is a sensitive and risky crop and without labourers and strict lockdown measures, it will be hit hard. Now most farmers in Maharashtra have huge debts and many of them have no idea what to do,” he says in a sombre tone.  Pushpendra Singh has already handed over his 20-point charter of demands to the government, which includes a revision of the PM KISAN sum and engagement of the MGNREGA workforce in agricultural activities to avoid a Maharashtra-like situation.  

Krishna Kumar, the founder of Cropin, one of the largest IT groups working on the entire farming value chain, also believes that a shortage of labour in the harvesting season posed a challenge to agriculture. He points out in the same breath that practically every sector of the economy was impacted by the lockdown, not to speak of sectors like petroleum, hospitality, aviation and shipping, which were the hardest hit.  

All of northwest India has faced huge challenges in harvesting Rabi crops and Singh’s suggestion of involving the MGNREGA workforce in agricultural activities may be a possible solution. But the problem does not end with harvesting. Procurement of the crop from the farmers is a challenge too. Dushyant Chautala, Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana, has suggested that the Haryana government would opt for thousands of local level procurement channels in case of procurement through the Agriculture Produce and Livestock Market Committees (APMCs) ran into rough weather. 

The problem is that most APMCs around the country are not operative and those that are, have to follow strict government guidelines. Agriculture policy experts like Vijay Sardana pitch for abolishing the APMCs altogether. Sardana says, “APMCs are the epicentre of many malicious trading practices and now they can become potential hotspots for Covid-19 infection, I don’t know why the government does not have the will to abolish them and allow food business groups to procure directly from farmers”.  

Post lockdown woes

Sardana may have a point, for the apprehension now is that once the lockdown is over, the surplus in the market may result in prices of agricultural produce crashing. Says Ghanwat, “For now, direct selling by farmers isn’t possible because a certain timeframe is allowed by the police to operate in the consumer market.” Krishna Kumar corroborates that farmgate prices of export commodities are crashing. He hastens to add though, that restrictions on agriculture and marketing of agricultural produce are being eased already. 

The challenges in agriculture and marketing farm produce vary from state to state. In most states, there is a possibility that farmers may be able to engage migrant labourers and get a remunerative price for their produce.  States like Gujarat, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal may look for better logistics and cold chain mechanisms for trading in aquaculture.

Like most other segments of the economy, agriculture too will perhaps not be the same again. Even after the pandemic has been controlled, the market structure and operating procedures of the agrarian community will have changed forever. 

Yes, at the end of 2020-21 fiscal, agriculture may turn out to have a much larger share of India’s GDP than it has had in recent years, but there are too many “ifs” and “buts” that block that path. With Mother Nature on his side, the Indian farmer may still go laughing all the way to the bank, whether or not his brethren in industry and the services do.