Lockdown Impact: Agriculture

Long road ahead on the farm front

Desperate situation for farmers, landless labourers and small-time traders

Long road ahead on the farm front

A farmer inspects wheat crop after heavy rain near Amritsar recently. Tribune photo: Vishal Kumar

Ruchika M Khanna

THE main pillars of Punjab’s rural economy are the farmer, the landless labourer, the small-time traders and those involved in dairying and poultry. All these pillars have been hit hard by the prolonged curfew imposed amid the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Every household involved in farming in Punjab has an average outstanding debt of Rs 1.19 lakh, way above the national average of Rs 47,000.

Punjab accounts for a high rural indebtedness. On an average, each household involved in farming in the state has an outstanding debt of Rs 1,19,500 — which is two-and-a-half times the all-India average of Rs 47,000. While 72 per cent of the debt is from institutional sources, the remaining is owed to money-lenders, often the arhtiyas, relatives or local traders. The state stares at a much higher debt burden on its rural households as the economic cost of the lockdown goes up.

Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan, general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), says all pillars of the rural economy have been shaken by the lockdown. “The farmer is under stress as he fears that the procurement may not be smooth. Those who grow horticultural crops, mainly the vegetable growers, have been forced to sell their produce at throwaway prices. The stress of ensuring that the wheat is sold to get income is too much to bear. The landless labourers, already reeling under a high debt burden (Rs 50,000-80,000) will be forced to take more loans. The traders, too, are suffering as nobody is buying anything other than essentials,” he rues.

Dairy farmers, after facing initial hiccups after the curfew was imposed, have heaved a sigh of relief as dairy operations have become almost smooth. It is the poultry farmers who are at the receiving end. Col JS Sohi, a poultry farmer in Batala, says the industry was first hit by rumours suggesting that poultry products caused Covid-19. Now, the poultry feed industry has shut operations because of the lockdown. “We have requested the government to cull the birds scientifically. Otherwise, these may die of starvation, leading to another kind of health hazard. The losses suffered by the poultry sector in Punjab are to the tune of Rs 2,000 crore,” he adds.

Noted agro economist RS Ghuman says the government would have to strategise and plan things carefully as the next two months are crucial for the revival of the rural economy, when the fresh harvest reaches the mandis. “The first priority should be to ensure a smooth flow of farm machinery and labour to the farms and mandis,” he says.

According to Secretary, Agriculture, Punjab, Kahan Singh Pannu, “It is important to kickstart the rural economy by ensuring smooth harvesting and procurement of wheat this month. The rural economy will benefit when Rs 27,000 crore go back into it through the purchase of wheat by government agencies. That is why the focus of the government, other than fighting the pandemic, is on this matter,” he says. The Punjab Government has already ensured that rakes of Bt cotton seeds have reached Bathinda from Tamil Nadu and the movement of fertilisers for the next crop has started, with five rakes expected to reach soon.

But all this is not enough, opines Parmod Kumar, Director of the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh. One major lesson that Covid-19 had taught us is that technology is not a panacea in itself, but humans and human labour is essential, especially now when we need specialised labour for running combine harvesters and for post-harvest management of wheat after it reaches mandis. “If the supply of food is an essential service, so is the production of food. Those who are involved in agriculture operations like farmers and landless labourers must be given preventive, curative and protective cover. Farmers and farm workers must be given sanitation kits, including soap, masks and sanitisers. Farm workers must be given safe housing, food and survival bonus as declared by the Central Government so that they come here. Health and life insurance for farmers and farm workers and a risk bonus for them in case of hospitalisation may also be given,” says Kumar.

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