Agriculture is the backbone of any economy and so is true for Indian economy too. It is the primary sector which generates employment and majority of the Indian population, is involved in this sector. The Indian economy has got a huge hit from the corona virus pandemic and resultant lockdowns. Like all other industries, India’s agriculture sector — the biggest contributor to the nation’s GDP — was faced with huge uncertainties after the COVID-19 outbreak due to the travel restrictions may it be domestic or international. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a more negative impact on activity in the first half of 2020 than anticipated, and the recovery is projected to be more gradual than previously forecast. In 2021 global growth is projected at 5.4 percent. Neverthless, IMF expects India’s GDP to grow 12.5 per cent in FY22, the highest among emerging and advanced economies.
With the ongoing pandemic, livelihoods of farming community are at high risk as most economic activity came to a standstill in April-May 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 induced lockdown. The harvesting process of Rabi(winter) season, which usually starts in mid-April, was thrown completely out of place, farmers struggled to purchase inputs right ahead of the harvest season as there was limited access to local or interstate market and mandis, transport systems came to a standstill, post-harvest loss piled up and the cost of unsold produce further deteriorated farmer finances resulting in major financial crunch. Having said this, whether it’s a lockdown or otherwise, farmers and farming have no choice but to keep going for the very reason that everyone needs food at least twice a day, every day.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge for India; its large population and the economy’s dependence on informal labour make lockdowns and other social distancing measures hugely disruptive. The rising usage of smart phones and the availability of low-cost data in India had been making farmers tech-savvy over the last few years. But as far as farming is concerned, even today India is mostly dependant on manual labour for farming activities. However, the COVID-19 outbreak and the consequent migration of labour from various regions resulted in farmers’ forceful adoption of agri-technology and app-based crop advisory services, and also made them more open to farm mechanisation.
Farming can neither halt nor wait
Lockdowns in major economies across the globe have caused delays and backlogs in supply chains. Currently, around half a million tonnes of Indian rice is locked up in the supply chains, while perishable crops are not being transported at all for fear of deterioration in delayed transit which is causing abrupt price rise of these products. Moving ahead, once the measures of re-establishment are initiated, the industry and service sectors is likely to revive much faster than of the agricultural sector for the simple reason that agriculture largely depends on the mercy of the weather.
But there is another side of this pandemic as the disrupted supply chains had to be restored with minimum impact on farmers’ pocket. This pandemic helped to create a a shift across the agricultural economy, away from conventional and informal markets towards a formal, and digital ones.
The solution to market agri-produce without travelling to collection spots like mandis and APMCs was found in online trade and e-mandis that helped farmers minimise their travel. Agritech startups, which co-existed with the traditional ecosystem for years was now had become suddenly essential. The concern and proactive measures taken by the government are laudable.
Prolonged strategy to combat impact of COVID-19 on farmers
Minimizing farmer Migration: Small and marginal farmers would prefer migrating to urban areas in search of wage employment to grab the available opportunity leaving their farms fallow. But, since the construction, travel, tourism and hospitality industries in urban areas have been severely affected by COVID-19 and are unlikely to resume and reach ‘normal’ in the near future, most of the farmers leaving agriculture are unlikely to get rewarding employment. There is a serious threat to income and food security in dry land areas.
Actively engaging farmers in the villages: Government should find out ways to ensure farmers stay in their villages to earn their livelihood and what better than farming. This could be done by intensifying soil and water conservation activities in the coming months under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and encouraging farmers to grow hardy crops as the Kharif season commences.
Enhancing seed systems: Ensuring availability of adequate quantity of seeds of for the coming Kharif season such as millets, and many pulses. The situation needs more focus as the seed stock which was thought to be adequate considering the normal crop season before COVID-19 needs to be reviewed as there is now a ‘new normal’ where more area and most of the farmers need to be engaged in farming.
Crisis not only creates problems but also opens up many opportunities which could be turned into solutions. The government could encourage Agricultural research institutes, SAUs, KVKs to pool the available seed material and immediately initiate large scale seed multiplication programme, so that the actual seed availability by July 2021 is a lot more than what it is now. Engaging the farmers in soil and water conservation activities through MGNREGS for the next three months together with the availability of seeds for the following 3-6 months should ensure that farmers stay in villages where they belong, and do what they are best at – working towards feeding their countrymen.