With markets shut, farm labourers absent from fields, and transportation services at a halt, is India likely to face a food crisis because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown?
Possible, if steps are not taken in some key areas.
As far as the availability of food is concerned, the country has more than adequate stock. Also, thanks to a surplus monsoon, a bumper rabi crop is on its way.
However, getting the food to plates could prove to be a problem, with a majorly disrupted supply chain, Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis shut, and inter-state movement of goods restricted. The extent of the distress the country might have to feel will depend on how soon and how effectively the links between field and table are restored.
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The availability of food grains should not be a problem. As this report in The Indian Express pointed out, on March 1, stocks of wheat and rice with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) stood at around 77.6 million tonnes (mt). This was over three-and-a-half times the minimum operational buffer-cum-strategic stock of 21.04 mt required to be maintained for April 1.
In the case of pulses, the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (Nafed) had 2.25 mt of stocks as on March 19, not including the rabi crop on its way.
The sale of grain doesn’t involve APMCs, and the stock simply has to be moved from godowns and supplied to ration shops.
The problem will be with fruits and vegetables — and at various levels.
A lot of rabi crop has already been harvested, but for the crop still standing, there could be shortage of farm labour, as a panicked exodus of migrant workers explodes around us.
After the crop is harvested, it has to be packed and transported to markets, which again needs workers, vehicle drivers, and uninterrupted movement.
Produce and its consumers are often in different states. As Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi pointed out, “We get rice from West Bengal, pulses from Katni and Satna in Madhya Pradesh, and mustard oil from Rajasthan”.
But with state borders sealed, there is no clarity on how smooth this transportation can be. The government has exempted good transport from the lockdown, but how this plays out at the level of the highways or the local police is another matter altogether.
There have been reports of police action even against those out to deliver “essential services”, which the government has repeatedly emphasised are exempt from lockdown restrictions. The distinction between essential and non-essential goods was lifted, and “all goods” were allowed on Sunday, but the prospect of being checked and harassed at every checkpost is likely to keep truck drivers and transport business owners away.
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Also, migrant workers in every sector have been dislocated and have in many cases headed home, and there is now a shortage of delivery personnel at all levels.
About the transport of farm produce, this report in The Indian Express noted, “Indiscriminately imposed inter-state movement restrictions have resulted in tomato-laden trucks from Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh not crossing over to Bengaluru or brinjal and beans from Chikkaballapur in Karnataka not reaching Hyderabad’s consumers. Alphonso mangoes and grapes not being allowed to move freely will hurt growers in Ratnagiri and Sangli just when their crop is being harvested.”
So, we can have a situation where while on the one hand, produce rots with distressed farmers, markets run short of supplies. This shortage probably won’t be felt much in metros and bigger cities, with governments ensuring at least the terminal markets in states get their daily requirement of produce.
The problem will be in smaller towns and hinterlands, which are serviced through small mandis.
The pressure on the supply chain links includes factors like closure of dhabas that serve truck drivers, shortage of labour to pack produce in gunny bags, and to load and unload the produce.
The way forward
The supply chain needs urgent lubrication, in the form of clear orders from the central and state governments that those engaged in agricultural labour will not be harassed, and the movement of produce-bearing vehicles will not be interrupted at state borders.
Uniform countrywide orders on operations of grocery, fruits and vegetable retailers will help.
With passenger train movements stopped, the Railways can be pressed into service to transport farm produce.
The APMC mandis can be better structured, with smaller mandis allowed to be set up in government schools or other areas instead of people converging at one big market. Farmers can be given day-wise or hour-wise slots, along with clear assurances that the sale of their produce will be looked-after.
The problem so far isn’t food, it is getting the food to the people. Urgent government intervention can fix that.
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