The wheat crop on Sukbhir Singh’s four acres of land 20 km from Ludhiana in Punjab will be ready for harvest next week. Plentiful rain and an unusually cold winter, said the farmer, is set to increase the yields.

But he is worried about the lockdown: would he be able to harvest and transport the grain under the current conditions?

On March 24, the central government announced a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus in India. However, it took three days for the government to realise that agricultural activities would be hit by the lockdown. On March 27, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs amended the lockdown order to include agricultural activities in the list of essential services allowed to function during the lockdown.

But this has not allayed Singh’s fears.

Before placing the country under lockdown, the government failed to announce food and wage support for the poor, triggering panic among daily-wage workers, many of whom decided to head back to their villages.

While harvest is largely mechanised in Punjab, farmers depend on workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for many other tasks like loading and transporting grain. Their absence would affect the operations. Further, farmers anticipate difficulty navigating the police restrictions to reach the mandis.

“We are witnessing police beating up everyone,” said Singh. “Even in normal times, we end up paying the local policeman. The government should make sure this does not happen when we transport our produce.”

Already, farmers who cultivate perishables like vegetables, fruits and flowers have been hit hard. India lacks a robust network of cold storage necessary to protect such produce when unexpected marketing delays take place.

In the flower cultivation belt of Hosur in Tamil Nadu, which caters to both domestic and export markets, for instance, farmers have been forced to let the crops rot.

Deep systemic problems that have been left unattended for decades have compounded the troubles during the lockdown, farmers and agricultural experts said.

Shoddy preparations

The March 27 order listed the following activities that were exempt from the lockdown: harvesting, movement of the harvested crop to the market, custom hiring centres that rent out machinery like harvesters and tractors and manufacturing of fertilizers, seeds and pesticides.

Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, said for those farmers producing food grains like wheat and paddy, the apprehension is now about transport of the harvested crop to the mandis. “It is one thing to just say these activities will be exempted,” Krishnan said. “But it is completely another to make arrangements to ensure the produce is lifted from the field.”

For example, Krishnan said in wheat and paddy cultivating regions, the crops are planted in thousands of hectares at a stretch. If there is a scarcity of large trucks, this will increase the cost of harvest. “At the level we are talking about, small trolleys and tractors won’t work,” he added. “You cannot harvest piecemeal.”

Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Secondly, Krishnan said the fear created by the lockdown and the unplanned manner in which it has been implemented could result in a rush to the mandis the moment the harvest starts. This could result in panic selling.Sudha Narayanan, associate professor specialising in agricultural economy at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, said the Centre’s belated order reflected a lack of coordination with states. “By merely issuing an exemption order, the Centre shouldn’t think it has absolved itself,” she said.

Many of the restriction orders in the states actually predate the nationwide lockdown announced on March 24. Some states have even taken steps to ease the situation – orders around which the Centre could build a consistent model, Narayanan added.

For example, she said Telangana has announced a token system for the farmers to go to the mandi. The state has promised complete decentralisation in procurement, whereby the purchases will be made through respective Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies in every village to cut down on the need for transport.

Narayanan said many states like Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have already implemented decentralised procurement, another model that could be enhanced to deal with the situation.

In Maharashtra, the government has said markets will function on specific days in a week and the off days will be used to clean the premises. This is being done to allay fears that the markets could see a rush due to the anxiety of the lockdown and this could affect social distancing.

Perishables hit

T Kodandaraman, a farmer leader in Hosur block in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, is distraught at the situation vegetable and flower farmers have been facing over the last week.

Much of the vegetable produce from Hosur goes to Karnataka. With interstate travel hit, access to their biggest market has been blocked. The situation is similar for flower farmers. Private horticulture agents have stopped taking the produce as exports are not possible.

This means the vegetables and flowers are rotting in the fields, Kodandaraman said, even though the state government issued an order on March 23 allowing essential goods such as fruits, grains and vegetables to be transported.

Credit: Reuters/Krishnendu Halder

Kodandaraman gave the example of cabbage farmers, whose investment for the crop is high. If the yield is good, a farmer could expect to harvest 300 bags of cabbage. Each bag is about 40 kilograms. Anything under Rs 300 for a bag would mean a debilitating loss for the farmer.

“We spend about Rs 80,000 per acre, including labour,” he said. Once the crop is ready for harvest, the farmer has a window of three days to harvest. “It will then start to dry up quickly and become useless.”

But leaving the crop in the field for three days would mean extra labour charges. “You need three people to take care of it and ensure worms don’t attack. That would be Rs 1,500 labour charges a day,” he said.

On March 29, the district officials met farmer representatives to devise a plan. “We have been assured of transport and the opening of markets. Let us wait and watch,” Kodandaraman said.

SK Jeyaraman, a farmer leader from Krishnagiri district, said either the government should itself lift the produce and pay the farmer or announce a relief package.

The main problem, he said, stemmed from years of neglect: despite the region being a hub of vegetable and horticulture farming, there has been no investment in cold storage facilities. “It is during a disaster like this that people realise how this neglect compounds the loss.”

Krishnagiri is also known as the “mango capital of South India”. Jeyaraman is worried that the lockdown could hurt mango farmers if the situation doesn’t improve by the first week of April. “The first stock of mangoes will be plucked early April,” he said. “Apart from selling it in the market, mango pulp manufacturing is big here. Most of the factories are closed.”