The nationwide lockdown of the last two weeks has certainly had an adverse impact on agriculture and allied activities. Major marketing yards are closed, lorry transport is rather limited and labour is unavailable in adequate numbers.
Growers across the country are losing income as they are unable to harvest and market the agri produce. This has a demoralising effect on the rural community. Also, port operations have ground to a halt. Export in general and shipment of perishables – fruits and vegetables – is affected. This is actually high season for the export of fruits such as mangoes.
In other words, the rural India is in a state of forced inactivity. At the moment, government functionaries are debating the most effective way forward – whether to fully or partially lift the lockdown or extend it. Whatever the decision, there will be risks.
At the same time, serious thought must be given to full or at least partial but secure resumption of agricultural activities. The harvest of the large rabi crops of wheat, mustard and chana cannot wait any longer. The prices of most rabi crops are ruling below the specified minimum support prices.
Rope in warehouses
Price support and procurement operations brook no delay. State agencies such as FCI and Nafed should stand geared to reach all major producing regions. To augment their efforts and reach the as yet unreached producing regions, New Delhi should consider engaging the services of professional warehousing companies who have track record and expertise in procurement, storage and crop preservation. Additionally, using online marketing or electronic mandi will help.
Marketing yards ( mandi s) will have to be opened, if need be with restricted timing. The marketing committees must ensure proper social distancing and avoidance of crowds. Importantly, as a quick relief measure, mandi tax or cess should be waived for at least three months.
Many FPOs (farmer producer organisations) and trading houses are holding export orders, but are unable to execute shipment. Those with proof of confirmed export orders (including pre-shipment bank credit) but are unable to effect shipment may be compensated to the extent of the loss.
The kharif sowing season will start, say, six weeks from now. The preliminary outlook for southwest monsoon appears to be positive. It is imperative that adequate quantities of farm inputs – seeds, fertilisers and agro-chemicals – are available on time.
In case the extension of lockdown becomes necessary, crop marketing should be exempt, with adequate precautions imposed.
Similarly, port operations, too, must be resumed gradually, especially for export goods.
Active role of States
In all these, the State governments have to rise to the occasion and play an active role in mitigating the challenges of the rural population. Distribution of the promised free ration of 5 kg wheat or rice per person for the next three months and 1 kg of pulse per vulnerable household must start without any delay. This would bring migrant workers/farm labour back into productive activity.
It is critical the Centre and the States act in unison to revive agriculture related activities. The coming weeks and months are likely to be challenging for the country. The aim should be to mitigate the hardship as much as humanly possible and prevent any chance of social unrest.
(The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal)