As harvest season draws near, will it be business as usual for the agricultural sector?

AGRICULTURE IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19

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Representational image. Pic: Yann Forget/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Baisakhi, the harvest festival, falls on April 13th. Fields across the country have turned a glossy gold with the Rabi crop—largely wheat, mustard, chana and barley, to be harvested in Punjab, Haryana and UP where it will begin during April 15-20. Only this time, machines, not men, the traditional backbone of Indian agriculture, will handle the harvest.

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As their vegetables lie unpicked and abandoned, farmers are worried how they will harvest the wheat, who will fill the jute bags with grains and load them on to the tractor trolleys, and who will unload them at the mandis, and above all, who will buy them. Reeling under the 21-day countrywide lockdown, a large chunk of migrant labour who did these jobs in states like Punjab, have gone back home.

In the southern states, paddy fields are already being harvested. Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao in fact called up his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar and urged him to persuade the migrant labour from there to return at the earliest, as his state was expecting a bumper paddy crop of over 1.05 crore metric tonnes. Reddy also spoke to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal to use her powers to enable the shut jute bag units to restart and deliver a consignment of 40 lakh bags!

In a video conference with chief ministers on April 2nd, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while reiterating the need to strictly enforce critical corona-related health precautions, also said some relaxation from lockdown has been specifically granted to ensure harvesting gets done, with public procurement to follow. The promise is that every grain that reaches the market will be procured at prices announced on March 20th this year.

India’s food security is what ad gurus would describe as “Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride”. And COVID-19 was not going to alter or destroy that, the Centre has assured. Modi asked states to think of other platforms for procuring grains apart from the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) and to “explore the possibility of creating pooling platforms for rural areas, like the ride sharing apps, which can be used for this purpose”.  The Centre hopes to tap into the eNAM, electronic National Agricultural Market, portal launched by the Modi government on April 14, 2016 which attempts to bring together farmers, traders, APMCs, farmer producer organisations, and mandis on board on one platform, besides creating other technology-driven systems to procure the farm produce.

If this seems like business as usual, it is because the government intends it to be that way. Five days into the lockdown, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, thanked the prime minister for excluding the following set of agricultural and allied activities from the lockdown.

  1. Veterinary hospitals
  2. Agencies engaged in procurement of agriculture products, including MSP operations
  3. Mandis operated by the APMCs or as notified by the State Government
  4. Farming operations by farmers and farm workers in the field
  5. Custom hiring centres (CHC) related to farm machinery
  6. Manufacturing and packaging units of Fertilizers, Pesticides and Seeds

The different Central and state ministries and departments took this forward and issued implementation guidelines to ensure agricultural activities are not interrupted by the lockdown, even as authorities emphasised, at every level, the need to ensure the required social distancing and other health procedures like wearing PPEs and maintaining personal hygiene, are followed in the fields during the harvesting and handling processes.

While movement of harvester combines has been permitted, the government has directed that precautions and safety measures of workers engaged in repair, maintenance and harvesting operation be ensured. But many crops are harvested manually. Like mustard, the second important rabi crop, lentil, maize, chillies and gram. An advisory, drafted by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), lists the “measures of personal hygiene and social distancing to be followed before, during and after executing the field operation.” The ICAR also moots the idea of staggering field operations wherever possible and suggests farmers employ fewer hands per day as compared to the past.

To avoid a virus carrier or suspected carrier on the fields leading to the gargantuan task of contact tracing, the agriculture ministry’s advisory to farmers includes preference for mechanised operations over manual wherever feasible, with minimum people on the machines, engaged after reasonable inquiry. “Proper sanitation and cleanliness of threshers for harvested maize and groundnut is to be maintained especially when machines are shared by farmer groups. Copious washing of machine parts with soap is advised”

Like the men, the machines, transport vehicles, gunny bags and other packing material too will be sanitised. And the grains will be kept in small heaps, distanced by three to four feet, no heap will have more than two people working on it.

The final and the most important part of the process, procurement by agencies like the FCI and state-owned procurement agencies are expected to begin after April 20th, by when the lockdown is likely to be eased somewhatSources in NITI Aayog suggested that procurement dates will be announced after the harvesting begins and lockdown is eased a bit and may be staggered. “The timeline may not be rigid or uniform across a region”, a NITI Ayog note said.

Meanwhile, between March 24th, when the lockdown was clamped and April 6th, the FCI had transported 605 rakes across the country carrying about 16.94 Lakh MT food grains from eight states—-Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Odisha. According to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, Punjab accounted for about 46% of total food grain movement at 7.73 MT followed by Haryana (3.02 MT), Telangana (2.04 MT) and Chhattisgarh (1.15 MT). Among the consuming states, maximum induction was done in Uttar Pradesh (2.07 LMT) followed by Bihar (1.96 LMT), West Bengal (1.65 LMT) and Karnataka (1.57 LMT).

All this notwithstanding, in these corona time, the harvest festival, which falls a day before the last day of lockdown will be a sombre affair, with the days to follow posing a huge challenge.


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About Vijaya Pushkarna 11 Articles
Vijaya Pushkarna is a journalist based in New Delhi. She was formerly Deputy Bureau Chief, Delhi at The Week.