Even though a record crop is expected this year, the lockdown may have robbed farmers of the chance to reap profits. There are no migrant labourers to help with harvesting and procurement, and no transport facilities to take the produce to markets in many parts of the country, report Vikas Vasudeva and Priscilla Jebaraj
It’s April 15, and with temperatures starting to soar, the government has just begun procurement of the winter wheat crop.
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.
The major worry is how to store this harvested produce during this extended period. The longer the produce stays in the field, the higher the risk.
To add to their woes, the family has outstanding debts to the tune of ₹3 lakh with the bank and commission agents and cannot afford crop damage.
The India 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 coupon system
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) of ₹1,925 per quintal.
This year, over 31 million hectares of farmland have been sown with wheat across the country, and a record harvest of 106 million tonnes is expected.
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.
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.
Punjab is expecting a bumper wheat harvest crop this season with production likely to touch 182 lakh tonnes.
The government estimates that around 137 lakh tonnes of this will arrive in the market, most of which will be purchased by government agencies.
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.
Lifting and transporting produce
The Punjab Agricultural Marketing Board has stated in its guidelines that Deputy Commissioners in their areas will ensure that the sold produce is lifted within 48 hours.
The government is still making arrangements for packaging and storage materials. Against the total requirement of 4.82 lakh gunny bales, 3.05 lakh have been made available till April 12.
Likewise, the arrangements for the 47,000 tarpaulins against the total demand of 52,570, and 29,261 mesh nets against 32,805, have already been made.
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.
Most of the precautions put in place to prevent the spread of infection translate to extra cost for the farmer. The government needs to announce a financial incentive to farmers to cover their enhanced expenses due to staggered procurement.
Watermelons, grapes go to waste
The problem may be more acute for those selling perishable crops such as fruits and vegetables.
Since the lockdown was imposed and transport came to a halt, farmers are not able to find a trader to transport their yields.
In the mosambi-growing region of Aurangabad and Jalana, farmers looked forward to a good year after two consecutive seasons of drought and hailstorm.
Farmers usually sell the crop while it is on the tree to the trader, who brings his own labour to harvest the fruit and load it in the trucks.
With the availability of water, this year’s crop was sure to bring huge money.
But as the lockdown was announced and movement of labour was stopped, no trader was available to purchase the crop. It’s all gone now. The impact of this virus is much bigger than any drought.
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 a bid to shield farmers from logistics hurdles, both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have launched initiatives to buy winter paddy directly from farmers at the village level, rather than expecting them to come to the mandi.
In Andhra Pradesh, the responsibility of procuring the State’s expected harvest of 57 lakh tonnes has been given to agriculture assistants at village secretariats.
In some parts of the country where the rabi harvest has already come to a close, sowing of the kharif or summer season crop has already begun.
In fact, government data show early sowing of paddy with the sown area almost 40% higher than usual by April 10. The IMD forecast of a normal monsoon has bolstered the Agriculture Ministry to target an all-time record production of foodgrain of 298.3 million tonnes in 2020-21.