In his fourth speech to the nation yesterday, extending the national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appreciated the Indian people for their peaceful and private celebration of harvest festivals this week. Unfortunately, actual harvests are not amenable to such indoor observance.
By the time the lockdown was first announced on March 24, the rabi harvest was already well underway in parts of the country and looming large for others. The period from March to June, from rabi harvest and marketing to kharif sowing as the monsoon arrives, is among the very busiest periods of the agricultural year across multiple agro-ecological regions and crops. It took a few days for the government's initial guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs to include agricultural activities, tools and machinery, agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilisers, pesticides), and APMC mandis and procurement agencies in the list of people and services permitted to move during lockdown. It reveals something about our national priorities that even during its peak season, agriculture - the largest employer in the country - had to wait for a second addendum.
Once both central and state orders were issued, however, it was hoped that the message would travel quickly down the line and that the allowances for agricultural activities and trade would facilitate movement. Instead, as the lockdown took effect, vital people, places and things (labour and buyers, mandis and warehouses, gunny bags and transporters, cash and credit) have all gone missing or fallen short at various critical points in the process. As a result, the myriad interconnections and arrangements (formal and informal) that keep our complex agricultural and food systems going everyday have suddenly become starkly visible. The human and economic costs of such delayed realisation have been severe. Now, as the country heads into another three weeks of lockdown, it is crucial that we take stock, put in place viable strategies, and ensure that adequate resources (human, institutional and financial) are deployed to support farmers and food systems across the country.
First and foremost, the government at all levels must digest its own orders allowing activities related to agricultural production, marketing and distribution to take place. In many cases, there will be clear material evidence (a tractor, truck, pushcart) plying the roads with agricultural produce or returning after their work is done. Further evidence need not be demanded. Instead, there have been numerous reports of the violent manhandling of people and produce in different parts of the country. The police must not be allowed to intimidate, detain, seize and in no way assault people carrying out essential agricultural and agricultural market-related work. For those who need to furnish additional proof that they are essential workers, especially for traders, small vendors and labourers, authorities should issue passes and ensure that they are honoured. It is worth reiterating that the people working at the frontlines of our food systems are doing so in spite of the risk of exposure to infection; they must not be exposed to the risk of violent and wrongful enforcement.
Second, for the major rabi food grains (wheat and rabi paddy), pulses and oilseeds, the central government and its national agencies (FCI and NAFED) must be ready to support states fully for an expanded and extended procurement season. States with strong procurement systems already in place, such as Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana have already laid out different plans. To avoid overcrowding, there are plans to expand the number of village-level centres, so that government-appointed agencies can procure closer to farms. States are implementing e-tokens and SMS passes for farmers to streamline and space out procurement, so that farmers only come to designated procurement centres at the appointed date and time. Some states like Haryana have also proposed that farmers be incentivised through a 'holding bonus' over and above the MSP if they delay the timing of their sale to government by a few weeks. These are all good moves and each state will know best what systems will work for them. But farmers need to be continuously assured that there will be no sudden closures in the procurement window and states must take extra steps to ensure that the usual breakdowns in logistics (labour, gunny bags, transport, storage, payments) do not further delay, disrupt and suspend operations. Haryana, it has been reported, is planning to engage labour under the MGNREGS for procurement operations in rural sites, for critical tasks such as bagging, weighing, loading, unloading etc.
The marketing of fresh, perishable produce has been badly hit by movement restrictions and by a substantial fall in demand due to the closure of hotels, restaurants and catering. In a number of states, government agencies and district administrators have stepped up and quickly put in place systems for village-level procurement and home delivery of fresh produce in the local area. Kerala is buying directly from farmers using panchayats, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are engaging Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) for both procurement from farmers and sales to consumers, and the administration in UP is also reported to have deployed a fleet of motorised vans and pushcarts for home delivery. In the coming days, states and districts will have to build and expand these kinds of systems. Produce procured can also be effectively absorbed into the local PDS, ICDS, mid-day meal programmes and for preparation of meals in relief and transit sites.
However, even if states were to follow through on the mantra 'procure, procure, procure' for this coronavirus season, there are just too many states with weak procurement systems and too many commodities that lie outside the government's procurement ambit and abilities. As importantly, agricultural markets also perform vital distributive functions so that multiple commodities and within them, different varieties and qualities, reach a wide range of consumers. This is not to say that these markets are not at all exploitative, but they are (more often than not) the only system that is present and functioning and are a critical source of livelihood. At this time of crisis, even as the state expands public procurement and distribution, it is therefore vital that agricultural markets are allowed to work. Indeed, as many have pointed out, and the NITI Aayog has recommended, this is the time to open these markets up, temporarily suspend state marketing laws and regulatory norms, and enable a wide range of buyers, market sites and channels to operate.
At the same time, major mandis are also going to have to start functioning again under challenging new protocols for social distancing. Here, a spirit of genuine consultation and implementation is likely to be more effective than coercion. For instance, in Maharashtra, where Vashi and other APMCs in and around Mumbai were shut down due to a trader being diagnosed as Covid-19 positive, there is a palpable sense of fear, a shortage of labour, and greatly depleted staff due to the lack of public transport and harassment. The reorganisation of market processes is also a serious challenge. Delhi is planning to experiment with a version of its odd-even scheme in Azadpur. While the standards for social distancing must be clearly communicated, how it is to be achieved and the actual adaptation of market processes can only be determined by each mandi and its stakeholders and should be left flexible.
This week, the Ministry of Agriculture has set up an All India Agri Transport Call Centre to address the ongoing challenges in the inter-state movement of agricultural produce and inputs during the lockdown. This is a much-needed step towards facilitating inter-state coordination, but will only work if deeper institutional mechanisms are simultaneously activated and sustained. Finally, as with everything else, financing needs to urgently materialise: now and as the season wears on, farmers will need greater income support and access to credit will be required across the supply chain. At the heart of the essential economy, agriculture and the circulation of agricultural commodities must keep pumping.
(Mekhala Krishnamurthy is a Senior Fellow and Director of the State Capacity Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research and Associate Professor at Ashoka University.)
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