“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city”.
— William Jennings Bryan,
‘Cross of Gold’ Speech (1896)
COVID-19 may go down as India’s first ever natural disaster not to register widespread starvation in terms of a total collapse in food consumption levels. About three million people perished in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. The 1966-67 Bihar famine led to the state’s daily per capita calorie intake dropping from 2,200 to nearly 1,200 in several regions. Maharashtra’s drought of 1972-73 caused an estimated 1,33,000-plus “excess deaths”.
The novel coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have had a far wider, nationwide impact. Yet, they haven’t produced the severe food deprivation, soaring prices and hoarding that defined the previous great calamities. We have had reports of stranded migrant workers not getting enough cooked food or dry rations. But these are largely stories of localised administrative neglect, and not comparable to the general lack of access to food seen in past catastrophes.
This time, not only is there no food crisis, the problem has been more about demand than supply. Panic buying of milk, atta, dal, sugar or cooking oil in the initial period of lockdown has given way to demand destruction from the closure of hotels, restaurants, tea stalls, caterers, sweetmeat shops and other business consumers. As a result, producers are the ones really suffering. Even with all the supply chain disruptions, there aren’t too many cases of food not being available in markets or at ration shops, community kitchens and relief camps. People may be hungry, but not starving.
The credit for this not-small transformation goes partly to the much-derided government foodgrain procurement and distribution system. India entered the lockdown with roughly 77 million tonnes (mt) of rice and wheat, plus another 2.25 mt of pulses, in public godowns. But the unsung heroes — without whom all this grain, now being distributed or cooked in food camps, wouldn’t have been produced at all — are the country’s farmers. These women and men have kept supplies going, even without being designated Frontline Corona Warriors.
The abundance of produce that farmers have delivered comes in spite of the many “coronas” faced by them in recent times — from droughts in 2014 and 2015, growing stray cattle menace, an anti-producer inflation-targeting policy and the demonetisation-induced crash in crop realisations. Each time, they have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes. They weathered the DeMo storm by simply replacing cash with deferred payments for farm inputs. Currently, they are harvesting wheat and sugarcane using whatever labour is available, whether of family members or non-farm workers rendered jobless by the lockdown. Theirs is a tale of resilience and human endurance.
What is it that makes our true Corona Warriors carry on, come rain or shine, drought or flood?
One is, of course, the nature of their work that allows little rest or procrastination. The period from about mid-February to mid-July is the busiest for farmers, when they are harvesting wheat, mustard, chana, potato, onion or sugarcane and then preparing the field to sow paddy, cotton, soyabean, maize or bajra. The workload reduces somewhat subsequently till around mid-September, being limited to day-to-day monitoring of the crop and giving water, fertilisers and pesticides or removing weeds. From mid-September till end-December, it’s back to harvesting and marketing the kharif crop and planting for the rabi season. For dairy farmers, even the 3-3.5 months of relative relaxation is ruled out, as their animals have to be fed, cleaned and milked daily.
This full-time activity — which involves following the dictates of nature and managing production as well as price risks — breeds toughness and equanimity in the face of adversity. Last year, when auto companies were announcing factory shutdowns amid a pile-up of inventories, a plain message circulated in a farmers’ WhatsApp group: “Why can’t they slash car prices from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 2 lakh, if we can sell Rs 20 onions for Rs 2? If we can bear losses and continue to farm, what stops them from running their plants?” Survival against all odds is hardwired into their genes.
A second reason why farmers are able to soldier on may have to do with their not having a narrow accountant’s approach to profits. Operating income, return on capital employed or earnings per share are all alien concepts; the key metric for them is bhaav (price). So long as it covers costs, not the most rigidly defined, and generates cash flows to run the home and finance the next crop cycle, they will keep producing.
How should we express gratitude to this Frontline Corona Warrior? Farmers don’t need our thalis and taalis (beating of plates or clapping of hands). They have filled our stomachs even in this hour of crisis. The least we can do is return the favour. As mentioned earlier, the problem now isn’t supply, but demand. With private trade practically non-existent and nobody apart from households buying, the onus to guarantee a market for farm produce lies on the state.
Government agencies have begun procuring the rabi crop, but in the name of maintaining social distancing, only few farmers are being allowed to come to the mandis every day. They are being issued coupons or SMSs to bring quantities as low as 5-10 quintals, similar to women Jan Dhan bank account-holders having to queue up for hours to withdraw a measly Rs 500. Why not open purchase centres at rice and dal mills or even schools, colleges, panchayat offices, cooperative societies, district courts and other public places shut during the lockdown? Wheat just has to be unloaded, cleaned, weighed, bagged and reloaded for dispatch to Food Corporation of India warehouses. If overcrowding is to be avoided, the best way is to spread out buying beyond the mandis.
Tailpiece: My friend and editor of Outlook Hindi magazine, Harvir Singh, recalls a door-to-door survey conducted at his village near Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli in 1976. The district authorities checked how much freshly-harvested wheat each farm household had stocked. After assessing the self-consumption requirement, they requisitioned the entire balance quantity as levy. Procurement was done without any fuss at the village’s junior high school. That was during the Emergency, when the government needed grain. Today, the farmer needs the government.
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