Even as the 21-day lockdown till April 14 appears set to be extended by two weeks, both the Centre and the states are agreed that the blanket restrictions on production and movement will not apply to farm-related work. Agriculture would, indeed, be the most significant, if not the only, economic activity the country might see at least till the end of this month. The government’s focus, too, will now have to be as much on the rabi crop’s harvesting and marketing as on keeping the war against the novel coronavirus going. But harvesting per se is unlikely to be a problem. The bulk of the mustard, chana (chickpea), masur (red lentil), sugarcane, potato and rabi onions have already been harvested. It’s only wheat and some seasonal vegetables (the likes of bottle gourd, okra, brinjal and cucumber) and fruit (mango and melons) that are still in the fields. Harvesting of rabi maize, summer moong (green gram) or even Dasheri, Chaunsa and Langra mangoes will only be after May.
Simply put, harvesting will happen. Farmers will somehow manage, whether by using combines (whose movement and deployment, both inter- and intra-state, has been exempted from the lockdown) or labour (including those forced to return to villages after being rendered jobless in factories and urban centres). The challenge is going to be with the crop’s marketing. There are two major issues here. The first is the mandis, which are normally a hive of activity at this time, when farmers in thousands bring their trolley-loads of produce to sell. Given the imperative of social distancing, that is ruled out today. Even if farmers were to come, there aren’t enough labourers in wholesale markets —predominantly from states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who have fled back home — to unload, clean, bag and reload their crop. The second issue is the collapse of demand. With hotels, restaurants, caterers and most agro-processing units shut, the market cannot absorb a bumper crop — a situation similar to that during April-June 2017 post demonetisation. Then, it was lack of cash. Now, it is lack of institutional buyers.
What is the way out? If overcrowding at the mandis is not to be allowed, farmers have to be given some incentive for not bringing their entire harvested crop straight from the field. There is a strong case to give, say, a bonus of Rs 50 over the minimum support price of Rs 1,925 per quintal for wheat that is sold after April 30 and Rs 100 if after May 30. Not only will this enable staggered crop arrivals, there would also be interest savings for the Food Corporation of India through reduced drawdown of cash credit limits. This is also the time for the Narendra Modi government to enact an omnibus law to remove all restrictions on sale, stocking, movement and export of farm produce. Coronavirus can do for agriculture what 1991 did for industry and services.
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