It is painful to see the Worldometer displaying the number of deaths globally due to COVID-19 racing towards six-digit figures, with Italy and the US topping the list with the five-digit figures. In India, the number of deaths is still in the low three digits. But we don’t know the true extent of infection and deaths as our testing is limited. So far, India has tested a little over one lakh people against a total population of 1.35 billion. Our cumulative testing number is today roughly the same as the US tests every day. Each day the US is discovering lots of new patients and recording an increasing number of deaths. The figures from China are always suspect as there is no free media or people’s voice.
It is well known now that the Chinese knew about this virus in November/December when one of their own doctors, Li Wenliang, turned whistleblower. But his voice was muzzled and Li himself died from the virus. But the episode indicates that the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime is a misfit in the globalised world of the 21st century. It is interesting that in China, even asking a simple question as to how much grain stock there is in the country can land you in trouble because grain stock figures are state secrets!
In India, we take pride in our democracy, no matter how flawed it is. It is the media, the fourth pillar of democracy, that raised the issue of migrant labourers when the prime minister suddenly announced a 21-day lockdown in the country. The front-page images of stranded migrant workers, walking long distances to their homes, made it clear that the administration was not prepared. They are now reacting to this crisis which has led to large-scale destitution. Better late than never.
Interestingly, the central government even went to the Supreme Court to ask for a control on media reports that are creating panic. Anything that is not palatable to the government can be “panicky”. Luckily, the Court did not side with the government. It is due to the strength of our democratic setup, with a free media, that Independent India never faced any large-scale starvation deaths, unlike the 1943 Bengal famine which claimed anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million lives. This needs to be juxtaposed with China’s authoritarian regime under Chairman Mao — 30 million people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), and the world did not know much about it because of the absence of a free press.
However, what the Indian media has still not flagged is the brewing trouble in villages. Most of these migrant workers come from farming families. Because of significant disruption in supply chains as a result of the lockdown, farmers are stuck with a large amount of produce, especially of perishables like milk, fruits and vegetables, flowers and even poultry meat and eggs. Due to this glut, farm prices are collapsing, pushing farmers into destitution. Many of them are dumping milk and vegetables on the roads. With the procurement season for rabi crops having started, the mandi system will choke, and social distancing will go for a toss if immediate steps are not taken to organise procurement operations in an orderly manner. The wisdom lies in converting this crisis into an opportunity for reforming the agri-marketing system. Here are a few suggestions that may help to put the agri-system on an efficient path.
One, abolish/reframe the APMC Act and encourage direct buying of agri-produce from farmers/farmer producer organisations (FPOs). The companies, processors, organised retailers, exporters, consumer groups, that buy directly from FPOs need not pay any market fee as they do not avail the facilities of APMC yards. Two, the warehouses can also be designated as markets, and the warehouse receipt system can be scaled up. The private sector should be encouraged to open mandis with modern infrastructure, capping commissions. Three, futures trading should be encouraged by allowing banking finance to hedge for commodity price risks.
Four, promote e-NAM through proper assaying and grading the produce and setting up dispute settlement mechanism; rope in major logistics players for delivery of goods. Five, procurement must be staggered through coupons and incentives that give farmers an additional bonus for bringing produce to the market after May 10, or so. And six, the amount provided under PM Kisan should be increased from Rs 6,000 to at least Rs 10,000 per farming family to partially compensate them for their losses.
Besides these, I feel, as the leader of the largest democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would benefit by taking a leaf out of the book of President Donald Trump. Modi should lead from the front by holding daily press briefings and announce a country-wide relief package amounting to around 8-10 per cent of GDP.
Once the fire-fighting is over, India needs to evaluate the WHO’s role in this fiasco. The January 14 tweet from the WHO stated: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCOV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” This now appears bizarre and misleading.
Whatever the causes of this disaster are, it is clear that the WHO failed in its duty to raise the alarm in time. India must ask for fundamental reforms in the UN System, including the WHO, making it more transparent, competent, and accountable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of April 13, 2020, under the name ‘After the fire-fighting’. Gulati is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER
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