Agri Business

Waiting for the wheat harvest in times of a pandemic

Nilabja Ghosh | Updated on April 27, 2020 Published on April 27, 2020

From heavy monsoon rains to lockdown disruptions, rabi 2019-20 has been no cakewalk

The wheat crop of rabi 2019-20 will probably go down as the one with the most chequered life cycle in recent times.

Even before sowing started, penalties were imposed in some regions for stubble-burning after the kharif harvest. More disturbingly, late and heavy monsoon rains in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan left the land unsuitable for sowing. Nevertheless, despite the delays and even re-sowing of land cleared of damaged crops, planting continued well into January when nearly all growing States recorded sowing activity, led by Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, as reports of monthly sown area show.

Now, with the pandemic disrupting harvesting operations in many places, the substantial total of 27 lakh hectares sown in January might prove to be a blessing in disguise if harvesting is delayed.

An unusually cold winter and cool spring had pushed the expected production to an unprecedented high of 106.21 million tonnes in the official 2nd advance estimates, a jump of 2.5 per cent over the previous year’s figure. However, this estimate was impacted by extraordinarily active western disturbances in the beginning of 2020. While it is hard to speculate on the effect of these rains on wheat yield, it is highly probable that the ripening crop would be hurt by heavy rains in the first two weeks of March in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Access to food

Food security and health safety are twin essentials for our right to life. While many other economic aspects could take a second place and be temporarily managed by government cash pay-outs, physical access to food is as important as the prevention of new diseases with no cure. Sadly, managing a trade-off between the two may be far from easy.

Till now, the problem was in the public accessing food in shops and markets, thanks to the lockdown imposed on March 24. The lack of communication and clarity made the situation worse but this is all mostly related to the downstream segments of the food supply chain.

But what about the upstream segment? The lockdown began suddenly, when harvest was already underway in some States, and was about to begin elsewhere. At the end of March, the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare (MOA&FW) came out with guidelines for the safety of farm workers, farm input providers and food procuring agents, all of whom got exemption from the lockdown.

Clearly, mechanised harvesting was encouraged though sanitisation was advised for the movements, repair and use of farm machines. There are advisories on the choice of farm workers and their safety practices. Given the cool weather, harvest in some States was advised to be delayed further. As in the cities, social distancing of manual workers in harvesting, post-harvest and farm marketing operations remained the key solution in rural India.

Suggestions by ICAR, the apex advisory body under the MOA&FW, for Covid-19 prevention are, in practice, more applicable to organised offices than farm operations. Though crop-specific precautionary measures have also been suggested for farmers and a document on the impact of Covid on food sector is under preparation, without more intense hands-on counselling, monitoring and enforcement, prevention of spread from cities to villages can prove difficult.

Key challenges

The physical distribution of effective sanitisers and soaps and rural quarantine or containment facilities as stand-by is a challenge. Reaching farmers around the country often operating in small farms will not be easy. The mass exodus of migrant labour, the quarantining or restraining of migrants at border or outside villages, has also threatened harvest operations.

Labour shortage is not the only constraint. The regulated APMC markets can play a big role but without sanitisation, distancing and counselling of farmers and traders, preventing the spread of infection will be a challenge. Possibly, supported by public cash transfers against unemployment, supply chains can be shortened and rarified to minimise contamination. Local residents should serve as workers in harvest and marketing as far as possible and any new entrant needs to be monitored even if the lockdown is lifted.

Public stock levels and movements need to be monitored strictly as options of imports and exports cannot be assessed yet. Indeed, the huge public food stock, though disturbing to economists, has become the saviour by means of which the government could reach the poor. As the financial year ended, residual wheat stock with the government has been over 27 million tonnes higher by 7 million tonnes compared to corresponding stock in 2019. Prior to harvest the stock had diminished by 3 mt in March last year, leaving enough leeway for public distribution in terms of quantity at this emergency time.

While there is a demand for extending the lockdown, any adverse effect on food supply in the near to medium future is as important a consideration as is the chance of carrying the dreaded disease to the villages.

(The writer is Professor, Institute of Economic Growth. Views are personal)

Published on April 27, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor