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With Onset of Harvest Season, Indian Farmers Fear Heavy Losses Amid COVID-19 Lockdown

© AFP 2023 / NARINDER NANUIndian farmer Santokh Singh sits among his ripening wheat crop in a field on the outskirts of Amritsar on April 15, 2016
Indian farmer Santokh Singh sits among his ripening wheat crop in a field on the outskirts of Amritsar on April 15, 2016 - Sputnik International
New Delhi (Sputnik): India is one of the world's largest producers of crops like rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, and agriculture contributes some 16 percent to the country's national income. There are concerns that due to the lockdown, the lack of farm activity will not only end up hurting farmers and labourers but will also affect food security.

The Indian farming sector is feared to be about to suffer losses worth several billion dollars, as activities have been badly hit by the nationwide anti-Covid-19 lockdown just as the country’s harvest season (April-June) is about to commence.

According to estimates, the sector is set to suffer at least a 20 percent loss in profits. This is because the government’s Minimum Support Prices (MSP) remain the same, hiring labourers is becoming more expensive or delay while goods are being delayed, reaching markets late as borders are closed in some states.

“Last year, the entire wheat sold an estimated to $608 Billion (INR 45 Trillion). So, this year, there might be a loss of 20 percent which would amount to INR 9 Trillion ($110 billion approx). Government should increase the MSP which will lead to a decrease in the total loss due to the lockdown,” said Dushyant Naagar of the farmer organisation Kisan Sangharsh Samite.

According to farmers across the country, the government’s exemptions to farmers during the lockdown will provide little help as they are still facing difficulty in selling their grain, finding labour, and transportation.  

“With the harvesting season around the corner, most of the small farmers have started harvesting but people who need machines for the same are staring at government to revoke lockdown. These farmers are into dairy businesses as well and the entire straw used for feeding cows and buffaloes for the year is produced from harvesting of wheat,” said Naagar.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has issued an advisory that harvesting shall be started after 20 April only because the entire crop is still not ready due to bad weather conditions in March.

“Farmers with small fields and crop quantity are eager to harvest their crops and keep it safely in their homes,” Naagar stated.

Several farmers contend that with the lockdown in force, they have been compelled to sell their crop locally at quite cheap rates.

“This is a harvest season in India for Rabi crops like wheat and some fruits such as grapes. I spoke to people in Nashik who stated that harvesting of grapes is going through rough phases as sufficient labourers are not available due to lockdown. Also, farmers are selling grapes at a  lower price like INR 10 or 12 per kg as they are not able to send it to other states amid lockdown which in turn is creating financial loss to them,” said Alok Ranjan, an agricultural expert and one of the founder member of the news channel DD Kisan, which is dedicated to farmers.

According to many farmers, labourers have either headed back home or are stuck in different states making it difficult for famers and forcing them to manage things themselves.

“Working alone in the field is a difficult task. We are not finding labourers and the ones available demand a lot. Other difficulties are border sealing due to lockdown which prevents transporting our crop. We are being forced to sell out crop before it gets destroyed,” said Raju Kumar, a farmer from Agra city, Uttar Pradesh.

The government is devising mechanism to provide farmers with equipment to enable them to start the harvesting. But they can only harvest the crop after 15 to 20 April.

A section of experts believes the government has given INR 2,000 to each farmer and as much amount is also set to be given in coming days under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna (a prime minister saving scheme) which will help farmers but not enough to cover the loss. Farmers will need seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, machinery and other important raw materials to enhance the agricultural outcome. So, government shall make sure that farmers avail all the products and services at the right hour.

“Most importantly, harvesting of crops, public procurement and storage of the grains shall be done in an effective manner. According to a statement in the Rajya Sabha (parliament’s upper house) last year, due to lack in storage of onion, quintals of onions have rotted and therefore, price of the same increased at an abrupt rate. Farmers should be provided insurance amount from Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna (PM’s crop insurance schme) in case they lose their crops due to bad weather conditions that prevailed,” said agriculture expert Ranjan said. 

He further added that the government shall be focused on the agricultural sector so that there is no food scarcity in the coming months.

According to many farmers in Bihar, they are now seeking either compensation, the government purchasing their crop or free access to markets to sell their produce irrespective of curbs.

“The government has announced public procurement to keep the grains safe during the pandemic and e-committees have been formed where farmers will get paid for the grains they sell and amount shall be reflected directly into their accounts. But we are not able to reach the agriculture market to sell our crops to them while Wheat Purchasing Centres shall be activated. And, as soon as grains are ready they shall be bought by these centres at a war-footing,” said Ranjan.

According to Ranjan, the government initiatives may show results in the next two to three months when crops will be harvested, sold and farmers would get their share.

“At this point, it is not viable to calculate the loss as this is the starting of lockdown but the crops which have been harvested and not being able to be sent to the markets which surely cause loss to the farmers in the long run,” Ranjan said.

He also added farmers know how to proceed with their work, they only needs to be sure of all what government has promised.

“Like, when after harvesting farmers reach markets with the grains then they should be given basic facilities like food, shelter etc so that they can stay there for days in order to get good rates of their grains,” he added.

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