It is a well-known fact that the agricultural sector is basically the backbone of a developing economy, particularly India. As per 2018, Indian agriculture employed about 50 per cent of its workforce and contributed about 17 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). From supplying food to supplying raw materials to the industrial sector, agriculture forms the foundation. Agriculture is one of the essential services of any nation. One can survive without the luxury goods, but not without food. Ironically, every time a country undergoes an emergency situation, agricultural laborers are affected the worst.
Since 30 December 2019, we know how the COVID 19 pandemic has taken the world in its clutches. Similar to the informal and daily wage workers, the agricultural laborers and farmers would be the adversely affected because of this pandemic and the subsequent lockdown scenario. The country is currently following a 21-day lockdown situation, as per the Union Government notification to maintain social distancing. The survival of the citizens is dependent on agriculture. One of the key determinants of a good harvest is that quality seeds are delivered to farmers by the seed sector, both public and private. Amidst the coronavirus crisis, it is important that good seeds and other farm inputs reach farmers in time for the Kharif season. The country typically requires about 250 lakh quintals of seeds for the Kharif season. Also, the preparation of seeds happens between March and May. The process begins from the farmers’ fields, where pollination and other processes are monitored by teams. After harvest, drying and selection, the seeds are then sent to the processing plants. From there they are sent to labs for testing and, finally, are packaged for supply to the farmers. Due to the pandemic, the procurement of wheat seeds has been delayed by two weeks and is likely to begin in the third week of April 2020.
The Centre and State governments have taken certain measures and announced exemptions for the agriculture sector in the areas of seeds, labourers, and farm related activities. Special packages have also been announced for different sectors, especially in Telangana and UP. The railways have been roped in to ease transport logistics. ICAR has issued an agri-advisory to maintain hygiene and social distancing. However, everything is not well in seed paradise.
Despite the exemption orders, the seed and allied sectors are experiencing harassment and in some cases violence at the local levels. Village level henchmen are using the opportunity to exploit the seed hubs and production facilities and make unreasonable demands. In certain areas, blocking of roads and immobility of labourers are being practiced. Transport services are not allowed to operate either.
The seed companies in India are majorly small and medium enterprises. They compartmentalise and outsource their work to various service providers, such as, drying, packaging or storing. They are also dependent on credit either from banks or private money lenders to run their operations. Thus, a slight spike in costs could be difficult for their operations.
Moreover, the distributor-retailer networks have dried up due to the scare of pandemic. This may result into prices of seeds sold by the retailers to increase.
Railways have a big role to play in this scenario. Firstly, they should be active in transporting farm inputs, including seeds, from seed hubs to all states and distribute grain and fresh produce from the villages to the cities.
Due to the lockdown nationwide, the farmers are facing a huge crisis as they cannot even harvest their produce let alone sell. Their crops cannot yield them anything if they cannot take their harvest to the market. And that exactly is what is happening due to the lockdown. From financial crunches to an uncertain future, agriculture is right now is one of the most vulnerable sectors of the economy. The supply-chain distortion of the farm produce has affected the consumers and farmers adversely. There has reports of farmers destroying their rabi harvest due to lack of consumers. Owing to shortage of laborers and lack of transportation facilities to the take the produce to the market, many farmers in Telangana have distributed muskmelon produce for free. In Belagavi, cabbage farmers have allowed cattle to graze through the cabbage crop because they had no way to sell the produce. Severe labour crunch in villages is a major issue. Drivers and laborers are not coming to work in the fear of catching the virus. Certain crops require specialized harvesters who are employed from outside. The same has not been possible due to the lockdown. There has been a growing anger against the government over the “ill-planned lockdown” and government not coming to the rescue of farmers. The farmers are requesting the elected representatives for a market to sell their produce and adequate cold storage facilities.
The governments should be paying more attention to this sector to ensure that during these times of crisis, the farmers are able to provide the society with the required food supply and they get their deserved share so as to sustain themselves and their families in these trying times. They should be provided with required materials to sanitize themselves and pack their crops properly to ensure safe and protected transportation. Governments should also ensure that in the process of ensuring adequate supply, the farmers and their families are not left hungry.
We know that it is uncertain as to when the effects of the pandemic will finally end and when our economy would be back on its own feet. But we cannot let uncertainties decide as to what we should be doing to protect our agricultural economy. In this time of emergency, the government apart from ensuring health facilities should also pay attention to sectors like the agriculture because when all of this ends, the primary sector will be the first to bear the brunt of all the changes as the most number of daily wage and informal workers also come from this sector. Special credit facilities and zero interest loans to poor farmers and waving off past loans can be few ways in which the government can help the agricultural sector to not get reduced to shambles once everything starts getting back to normal because without a strong agricultural sector we will not be able to get back to normal functioning of the economy again.
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