Updated: March 28, 2020 11:24:41 am
This is perhaps the first time ever that India is facing a national disaster or a war-like situation — Prime Minister Narendra Modi evoked memories of “blackout drills” in his first address on combating the novel coronavirus — amidst plentiful supplies of food even as a bumper rabi crop beckons.
Farmers are currently about to harvest —if they haven’t already — wheat, mustard, chana (chickpea), matar (field pea), potato, onion, garlic, zeera (cumin seed), coriander, fennel, red chilli, grapes, mango, summer tomato and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Given the surplus and extended monsoon rains, which helped recharge ground water and fill up reservoirs, a superabundant produce is round the corner. This comes even as there is demand destruction from the shutting down of HORECA (hotels, restaurants and catering) and other institutional segment businesses following the nationwide lockdown.
It raises the possibility of a crisis similar to the one three years ago that followed demonetisation. But the scale, it is feared, could be bigger. The post-demonetisation rabi crop, also a bumper one, was at least harvested and marketed even if it didn’t fetch a good price.
How to transport produce
This time, there are doubts being raised even on that. The simple reason for it is: Will farmers, labourers and machines (combines, threshers and tractor trolleys) be able to move freely to harvest the produce and take it to the mandis?
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The Uttar Pradesh government on Thursday issued a direction to all district administrations and law-enforcement authorities to exempt all services, including labour, that are involved in agricultural production, processing and marketing from the current lockdown provisions. Other states, too, may follow. But the question remains: How will these directives be implemented on the ground? Would farmers or labourers be asked to produce proof and does that, in turn, open a new avenue for police harassment?
Will there be workers?
At the second stage comes the mandis, where marketing of the crop would happen. Here again, there is a possibility of shortage of labour (the people who do unloading, cleaning, bagging and reloading of the grain that is auctioned or sold) and even gunny bags. Further, it would be necessary to prevent crowding, and maintain social distancing. One way out could be to allow entry only to a limited number of farmers, who may be issued SMS alerts informing them about the date and time to bring their crop. Each farmer can also be given a maximum quantity — say, one tractor-trolley load of 30-40 quintals — that may be brought in a single day. The permission for the next trolley load will be only after other farmers have got their turn to sell.
All this will obviously delay the process of marketing, raising the prospect of panic sales. This could be avoided if the government were to give a clear-cut assurance — at least in respect of crop where there is minimum support price-based procurement — that it will continue buying till the last grain is offered.
Besides, the marketing of produce needn’t be limited to the APMC (agricultural produce market committee) mandi yard. Any flour or dal mill, and even primary school premises can be designated as an APMC marketing area. The objective should be to ensure that the farmer’s produce gets marketed without resulting in overcrowding.
Beyond the mandi
Once marketing is done, the crop has to move beyond the mandi. This is probably the right time to dismantle all inter-state and intra-state movement restrictions in farm produce. Free movement is necessary in the context of both a bumper crop and the ongoing lockdown.
The risk of shortages today is really not in the metros or state capitals. The food and civil supplies departments in states will ultimately ensure that the terminal markets in these centres — whether Azadpur in Delhi, Vashi in Mumbai, or Koyambedu in Chennai — receive their required daily flow of produce. The problem will be in the remote towns and the rural hinterlands that are serviced through upcountry APMCs. The grocers there are at the greatest risk of running out of stocks if the lockdown continues without inter-state movement restrictions in agricultural commodities being removed. As Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi has pointed out, “We get rice from West Bengal, pulses from Katni and Satna in Madhya Pradesh, and mustard oil from Rajasthan”.
The difficulty for trucks to run long hauls during the lockdown arises not just from being stopped at every check post, or being held up at state borders. It arises also from the fact that roadside restaurants or dhabas that cater to the drivers are no longer operating.
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But this again can be partly managed by using the spare wagon capacity that exists with the Railways today. With passenger trains not running, and no demand for moving goods either, more rakes can be deployed for long haul transport of agri produce. These goods trains can be sent faster now to reach remote areas, so that the wholesale traders there can seamlessly supply to local grocers.
All these steps will have to be taken fast in a situation where agriculture and making food available to homebound citizens would the only worthwhile economic activity till the battle against COVID-19 is won.
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