What is the impact of Covid-19 on the agriculture sector?
The agriculture sector was exempted from the lockdown from the beginning. Therefore, farm activities never came to a complete standstill. On the contrary, 3,200 centres are supplying 2,000 tonnes of vegetables daily across the state. Vegetables and fruits being perishable items were regularly transported from farm to markets. There were some ups and downs in retaining the supply chain. But overall, farmers have suffered due to fluctuation in prices of farm produce. The impact on transport sector coupled with temporary closure of APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) markets for one week to 15 days due to Covid-19 cases among workers badly hit the farmers. However, farmers’ groups adopted non-conventional methods to directly sell products in cities and towns.
Has the ministry worked the financial losses in agriculture sector?
No, as it is difficult to make the assessment because the impact of Covid-19 on farm produce has been felt at different levels. For example, due to misinformation, people initially stopped consuming poultry. Now, this has badly hit the poultry industry. The supply of maize, widely used for poultry feed, did have any takers. Therefore, rates of maize dropped to Rs 900 per quintal from Rs 1,500 per quintal. Watermelon, which brings good income in summer, was a setback due to lack of workers. Cauliflower crop was left out in the fields. Those cultivating grapes had to make arrangements within camps to retain migrant workers. Now, all this expenditure is difficult to quantify. While farmers’ produce fetches them some income, it would be unjust to say they were not hit by Covid-19. At the same time, if we compare agriculture with other sectors, it survived despite difficult times as farmers managed to keep pace with demand and supply.
Ahead of kharif season, what are the challenges?
If we look at the trend in Covid-19 cases, its concentration is in cities. Except for 2 to 3 per cent villages sharing borders with major cities, 97 to 98 per cent of the rural belt is free of the infection. It is prepared for agricultural activities. Therefore, agriculture department has to ensure adequate seeds and fertilisers to farmers in time. We have stocked 17 lakh quintal seeds and 40 lakh metric tonnes of fertilisers. Since farmers’ demand for urea is high as they believe it enhances crop growth and production, we have additional stock of 50,000 metric tonnes of urea. However, agriculture centres will issue guidelines to farmers on quantity of urea required as per the crop.
But how will farmers sow kharif crops when banks are not giving them loans?
The government resolution issued this week clearly states that even debt-ridden farmers should be eligible for new crop loans. The state government is the guarantor. Out of 30 lakh farmers, 19 lakh have got a loan waiver of Rs 12,000 crore. But 11 lakh farmers did not get the benefit of the loan waiver due to financial problems in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown. But the state government will credit Rs 8,500-crore loan waiver to 11 lakh farmers by the end of June. Therefore, there is no reason why banks should not give them crop loan. After all, these banks thrive on deposits from farmers. We will ensure farmers are not denied crop loan.
What about availability of workforce in fields?
Agriculture is the most assured sector, both in terms of employment and livelihood. And due to Covid-19, we have seen a large exodus of migrants from urban to rural belt within the state. In-house migrants will certainly take to agricultural activities, which is the mainstay of rural Maharashtra. A large number of workers in Mumbai have returned to their native villages in Konkan due to job loss or closure of services and industrial activities. These workers will take up jobs in the agriculture sector. They will tend to their abandoned land. So, I expect greater demand for agriculture jobs and an increase in workers taking to farming and allied agricultural activities across rural parts of the state.
Can you explain the delay in procurement of cotton, pulses and paddy? Farmers have no money.
The lockdown had adversely affected the procurement process. In some districts, it stopped due to the fear of the coronavirus. But the procurement of cotton, toor, harbara and maize has started in the last 10 to 12 days. The process will continue till June to provide relief to farmers.
Do you expect higher food production in the kharif season?
The IMD (India Meteorological Department) has predicted a good monsoon. The state expects rain in the second week of June, so we are hopeful. However, we have to be prepared for any natural calamity.
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