Protecting Farmers, Agricultural Workers From Economic Distress

"No one will go hungry," was Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's assurance to a nation of 1.3 billion people last week in what was the government's first attempt to address the world's largest informal workers' population. Comprising over 90% of India's employable population of 500 million, the informal workforce is the mainstay of the Indian economy. Agriculture is the biggest employer of informal workforce in the country. Recruitment is through verbal contracts that are devoid of paid leave and social security benefits. In the aftermath of the announcement to address the impact of the fast-spreading Covid-19, rural daily wagers have been left out in the cold.

Oxfam India's latest study on the sugar supply chain of Maharashtra is an insight into the overarching reality of India's agricultural workers, composed mainly of informal labourers. The drought-hit region of Marathwada pushes over 1.5 million workers to migrate to the sugar-producing belt of Maharashtra in search of employment each year. Verbal offers and advance payments serve as recruitment contracts for these workers. The advances are usually settled against labour on sugarcane farms through the harvesting season that lasts up to six months. Living conditions of workers at the farms are as grim as their working conditions. They live in large colonies of self-constructed makeshift tents of tarpaulin sheets. Families as large as four to five members accommodate themselves in these tents without any provision for water, electricity or even toilets. Unfair practices at work push migrant workers into a constant fear of losing jobs or facing unnecessary wage deductions. Far away from home, these workers are not covered by public healthcare systems, and are dependent on contractors for most of their essential needs such as food supplies and medical assistance.

Ironically, the lockdown informed workers of the pandemic. With no income or savings, and depleting rations, workers are battling survival. Gendered marginalization in rural Maharashtra communities in times of Covid-19 has also increased. As the temperatures further parch the already dry region, women and girls have to travel longer distances to fetch water or have to shell out their meager savings to purchase it.

Informal workers contribute 54.2% to the national GDP, but remain excluded from social protection and benefits. In the times of Covid-19, where urban centres are under constant supervision for maintaining lockdown, rural authorities are still unequipped to handle the crisis. Here are some measures that can help prepare authorities at rural-levels to cope with the challenge.

Social distancing: For most, social distancing may sound like a privilege accessible to the middle class. But in light of inadequate health-care centres and professionals in rural India, it is all the more imperative that uncompromising measures are taken to prevent the spread of the disease. Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), local civil society organizations (CSOs), Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), extension agencies of input companies, and sugar mills should become information-disseminating channels to inform workers about the pandemic, precautionary measures, and available resources to implement correct practices.

Isolation: Existing infrastructures or appropriate makeshift facilities may be adapted as quarantine centres at village levels. In the situation where a Covid-19 case is detected, the above channels must immediately quarantine and report the case to authorities.

Food: As several workers continue to be stranded or on the move, loss of jobs and dearth of resources must not translate into hunger deaths in the country. The government should ensure access to 'Gareeb Kalyan Ann Yojana' wherever they are. Sapna Surin from Oxfam India questions, "Whether registered or unregistered, people often lack required documents to claim the provision from the government. How is the government looking to work through this challenge, while ensuring that nobody goes hungry?"

Panchayat funds can be utilized to set up community kitchens at village levels to ensure that all unemployed workers, senior citizens, children and others in need have access to food.

Lockdown Exemption Challenges: The ongoing harvesting season, and a limited window to sow crops for the upcoming season, has pushed the centre to exempt farming services from the lockdown. Lack of storage infrastructure at the village level will persuade distress selling. It is imperative that the government intervenes and installs a direct-procurement system. Collection centres at cluster levels in villages and existing village-level infrastructure may be converted to centres for procurement of crops and sale of agricultural inputs for the next sowing season. Prem Kumar Anand of Oxfam India recommends, "Turn village schools into procurement centres in this period and the government should purchase directly at minimum support prices (MSP)". Utilization of existing collection centres and infrastructure, and strengthening the administrative services on village and block levels are crucial to circumvent manipulation of farmers and prevent loss of rural income. Local NGOs and PRIs can further promote collective selling of produce from smallholders to minimize logistical spend and physical exposure. Public and private warehousing companies should also pitch in to mitigate procurement risks with warehouse receipts serving as financial security.

Covid-19 is not just a disease, but also a warning. In the midst of numerous social, political and economic issues stinging the state, a virus has emerged as a leveler and reminder. The silver lining in this situation is that in a country like India, the case of the undocumented worker could not have been advocated more. The government must treat this as a foreboding and document all unregistered citizens. Traceability in India's industrial supply chains will also establish the accountability of employers to adhere to human rights standards and ensure decent working conditions.

(Pooja Adhikari and Ishita Aggarwal Choudhary work with the Private Sector Engagement Team at Oxfam India.)

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