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For India’s distressed farmers, a little bit of help on Twitter

India’s nationwide lockdown implemented in March to contain the spread of coronavirus coincided with the harvest season, resulting in tonnes of wasted crops and severe losses for farmers.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata | Updated: April 28, 2020 11:44:52 am
For India’s distressed farmers, a little bit of help on Twitter Ripe pineapple ready for harvest in a field in Biddhannagar, Siliguri in northern West Bengal. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, 20,000 metric tonnes of fresh harvest across 500 hectares of land may go to waste. (Photo credit: Arun Mandal)

Just weeks after India announced a nationwide lockdown, it was time to harvest watermelon crops across the country. This past winter, Chandram Benur, a small farmer in Karnataka, had taken a loan of Rs 6,00,000 to grow watermelon in the five acres he owned in Nimbal village of Karnataka’s Indi taluk.

Unable to reach the local market, the 80 tonnes of watermelon in Benur’s fields was beginning to rot. Desperate to offload the fruit and without any access to long-term cold storage, he was compelled to sell the fresh harvest at just Rs 2 per kilogram to those in his village still willing to buy the produce. The rest were being given to farm animals to eat. On a regular day, Benur would have been able to sell the harvest for anything between Rs 25 to Rs 30 per kilo.

A water buffalo eats watermelon from Chandram Benur’s fields in Nimbal village, Indi taluk, Karnataka, that the farmer has been unable to sell. (Photo credit: Chandram Benur)

“Not even in my dreams did I think that this virus will destroy our crops like this. I had grown around 80 tonnes of watermelon, which is now wasted,” said Benur. This harvest season 14 other farmers along with Benur had planted watermelon seeds for the first time, a switch from their usual crops.

Farming experts and agriculture researchers whom indianexpress.com spoke to said it is common for more small farmers to follow the crop that was successful for some in any given season in the hope of better earnings. India’s nationwide lockdown implemented in March to contain the spread of coronavirus coincided with the harvest season, resulting in tonnes of wasted crops and severe losses for farmers. While India’s agriculture industry has been collectively impacted, the hardest hit have been small farmers who operate out of leased agricultural land and capital taken on high interest rates.

Following the lockdown and calls from distressed farmers’ unions across the country, the Indian government temporarily permitted the harvesting of the standing crops. In an advisory issued on March 31, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare provided detailed information regarding the harvesting, storing and transportation of crops across the country. Before the issuance of the advisory, farmers had been unable to harvest fearing potential lockdown violations.

Chandram Benur’s watermelon crop, ready to harvest in his fields in Nimbal village, Indi taluk, Karnataka, that the farmer has been unable to sell. (Photo credit: Chandram Benur)

In mid-April, a Twitter account named ‘Harvesting Farmer Network’ began sharing information about distressed farmers across the country and stocks of harvested fruits and vegetables for which they were desperately searching for buyers. Interested customers were urged to directly contact farmers nearest to them and purchase produce, everything from mangoes to mushrooms, if they could make their own arrangements for transportation.

The Twitter account was the brainchild of Ruchit Garg, a Chandigarh-based entrepreneur, who runs Harvesting, an agri-finance company based in India focusing on Indian farmers and the financial challenges they face. “Small farmers have difficulty accessing markets, feeds and fertilisers, machinery and financial loans and insurances,” explained Garg. Following the lockdown, Garg set up the Twitter account to help connect farmers directly to customers.

“I have access to a network of 10,00,000 farmers across 22 states. During the lockdown, I saw farmers struggling and throwing away crops. Farmers didn’t know how to connect with buyers,” said Garg, speaking about his motivation for starting the Twitter account. Within days of starting the account, it had acquired some 6,000 followers and counting.

The Twitter account documents farmers across the country desperately searching for customers amidst the rotting produce and wasted financial investments and labour. In many cases, even if a farmer is able to connect with a prospective client, a transaction doesn’t necessarily materialise because the parties are unable to reach each other due to curbs on transportation.

READ | Maharashtra: Loan waiver benefit for 12 lakh farmers delayed, govt reaches out to RBI

According to Garg, following the setting up of the Twitter account, some customers living in residential complexes across the country began forming WhatsApp groups to place bulk orders and arranged for transportation to make successful deliveries and purchases of fruits and vegetables directly from distressed farmers, while maintaining the required rules of social distancing.

On April 23, Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya tweeted that he had arranged to pick up one truck load of cabbages from a farm in Chamarajanagar to distribute the produce among low-income residents of south Bengaluru. He had been alerted to the cabbage harvest because the farmer had reached out to Surya directly on the social media platform. While many farmers in India have started using social media platforms, farming experts say there are several others who aren’t familiar with outreach on social media and hence lose out on connecting directly with potential customers.

Abinash Das, a tribal farmer from Angul district in Odisha, desperate to offload 100 tonnes of fresh watermelons, had reached out to Garg’s Harvesting Farmer Network. Three days later, he messaged Garg to let him know that a customer from Kolkata had purchased all the watermelons at “a good price”. The farmer was unable to provide indianexpress.com with details of how the customers travelled from West Bengal to Odisha during the lockdown. But Das has been among the handful of farmers who have been fortunate to find customers during the lockdown.

READ | Grain stocks hit record high of 73.85 million tonnes in April

Not every client engages with farmers in good faith. Recently, the Harvesting Farmer Network posted screenshots of a farmer who sold 1,700 kg of watermelon to a customer in Bangalore who only gave the farmer Rs. 5,000 for the total produce, significantly less than the produce’s value. “So we are worried (about sending) it to far (off) cities,” the farmer wrote in a message.

Sujit Rohamare, 38, a farmer in Shirdi, Maharashtra, had evenly distributed his 40-acre plot to grow chikoo, guavas, sitaphal and mangoes. The ripening chikoo fruit are still hanging on the trees but Rohamare does not have access to the markets and a very small window to sell them before they start over-ripening and dropping to the ground. According to Rohamare whose family has been in the farming business for at least four decades, the middlemen who are coming in to buy his harvest and transporting it to the few markets that are open in nearby towns, have been purchasing the fruits at low prices from farmers and have been selling them inflated costs in towns. “The buyers are exploiting the situation and are taking a kilogram of chikoo from me for Rs.10. Usually they pay Rs. 35 per kilo. They are taking advantage,” he said.

For Rohamare, the profits from this harvest have been negligible. He does not anticipate being able to recover even his investments. “Farmers don’t have access to markets. Buyers and farmers having access to each other is a good thing,” he said. Rohamare does not know how long his business will be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak but he believes that if the situation improves and the lockdown is eased, farmers may be able to sell their harvest once again.

READ | 55-yr-old farmer distributes 400 kg vegetables for free in Dahod village

Farming activist and researcher Ramandeep Singh Mann says the hardest hit have been farmers of horticultural crops like vegetables and fruits because farmers cannot store them. “After the lockdown, the crops were harvested, but the farmer was unable to bring it to the village mandis (markets). So he never got the rates for it and many saw 100 per cent of their produce wasted,” said Mann.

In the town of Biddhannagar in northern West Bengal’s Siliguri, approximately 13,000 farmers have been growing pineapples for years on some 500 hectares of land. Arun Mandal, secretary of the North Bengal Pineapple Growers’ Association, told indianexpress.com that after tea, pineapples are North Bengal’s highest revenue-generating export. “We have 500 hectares of land full of ripe pineapples, weighing 20,000 metric tonnes. If it is not harvested, it will be ruined,” said Mandal. Since the lockdown, farm-hands have not been coming in and the association has had to reach out to local labourers for assistance in harvesting the ripening fruit.

A pineapple farmer in Biddhannagar, Siliguri in northern West Bengal, sits in his field surrounded by ripe pineapples ready for harvest. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, he faces severe loss of income, wasted labour and his fresh harvest. (Photo credit: Arun Mandal)

While pineapples are now grown throughout the year, according to Mandal, the sweetest produce is harvested during the main season, between June to August. If the lockdown is extended, the farmers may lose out on the best of their harvest. Like other farmers around the country, Mandal and his colleagues do not have access to cold storage that could prevent large-scale wastage. “The North Bengal economy will be ruined because Rs 600 crore are earned due to pineapple crops. The farmers will be ruined,” said Mandal. Figures related to North Bengal’s earnings through pineapple crops could not be immediately verified.

Horticultural crop growers in India have little to no insurance, said Mann, and they aren’t very keen on getting the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, a national insurance scheme for farmers, because the insurance rates at 5 per cent is very high, particularly for small farmers. “Their input costs this year have been ruined and the next cycle of crops will come a little more than four to five months later. So, in the meantime, the farmer will have nothing to sell and eat,” said Mann.

He estimates that 70 to 80 per cent of farmers in India will only manage to recover their input costs following the coronavirus lockdown, and will possibly not be able to rake in any profits. If farmers are unable to sell their produce at a fair market price, these farmers will be unable to pay off loans. Industry observers have also received reports of wholesale buyers and middlemen exploiting the situation and getting away without paying many farmers a fair price.

Senior CPI(M) leader Mohammad Salim alerted the All India Kisan Sabha, an offshoot of the political party established in 1936 for poor farmers, on April 23 that farmers in Mainaguri, Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, had begun throwing away tonnes of fresh vegetables to protest being underpaid and exploited by wholesale buyers following the lockdown.

While this harvest cycle will not generate any income for most farmers, they will be compelled to take on loans to procure seeds for the next season’s harvest, while using some of that money to pay off existing loans. “A farmer cannot afford to take out loans for his own needs. The loan cycle will continue,” said Mann. Already reeling from the impact of the 2016 demonetisation and the effects of climate change, resulting in unseasonal rains, hailstorms, droughts, floods etc, the agriculture sector had barely started recovering when farmers found themselves hit by the financial consequences of the coronavirus lockdown. According to Mann, it will take the farmers at least four years to stand on their feet once the situation is back to normal across the country.

Following the nationwide lockdown, Mann believes that anywhere between 50 to 80 per cent of wholesale markets have been closed across the country. “On an average in one month, Rs 40,000 crore worth of crops are sold. Since the lockdown, only Rs 20,000 crore worth of crops have been sold and the rest have been wasted,” said Mann.

Farmers have reported that helpline numbers set up by state governments have also not been of any assistance to them. In one case, a farmer in Karnataka was able to speak with a helpline assistant after several tries, only to be told that he would have to go from “street to street” himself to sell his produce. With no alternatives, the farmer said he was compelled to do just that.

Darshan Devaiah contributed to this report from Karnataka.

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