Wearing a soiled kurta-pyjama, Ajay Kumar was tending to his green fields in a rural village in Uttar Pradesh. The uncertainty of the past few months is gradually making way for hope and happiness. The lands are now green, and with a good monsoon forecast, Kumar was hopeful of a bumper harvest.

“When I had returned to my village in April, we had no hope and were staring at a bleak future,” Kumar said. “So, turning to our ancestral fields seemed the only way forward for us.”

“Two months on, we have made good progress and with good monsoon, I am looking forward to a bumper crop and good income,” he said.

Before returning to his village in Hamirpur district, Kumar was employed at a gated apartment society in Noida. He was planning to buy a small house in the outskirts and lead a life of “independence”. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Kumar lost his job and all his plans crumbled.

Unsure about the immediate future in the city, he vacated his rented accommodation, and returned to his village, along with his nephews, who too had lost their jobs. Kumar is now well-settled in his home again and has finished sowing pulses and oilseeds in his ancestral lands.

Like Kumar, mason Chandragopal Ahirwar is now dedicating all his time to farming in his village Khareha of Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh.

“When nothing else works, you turn to the lap of Mother Earth and she always provides,” said the 38-year-old. After his source of income dried up due to the lockdown, Ahirwar and his daily-wager family – wife Rajrani, elder brother Jairam and sister-in-law Guri – had to leave their rented Delhi-home. “So we went back to our village and turned to farming,” he said. “Honestly, I am happy to be back in my fields.”

“In return for income, city life takes away a lot – health, happiness, and community sentiment,” he said. “Though I returned under compulsion, at the moment I am not regretting.”

The Ahirwar family has sown sesame with an investment of Rs 5,000. “We rely on rain for our crops,” he said. “A good rainfall and with more hands to tend to the crop, we are hoping to get a good return.”

In the absence of sufficient rainfall and lack of personal attention, Ahirwar says it even gets difficult to recover the investments. Kumar and Ahirwar are among the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who returned to their homes in villages across India after the pandemic-induced lockdown left them unemployed in cities and industrial clusters. Reverse migration was seen as a huge threat to the economy and some economists even thought it would increase the informality.

But there are several cases like Kumar and Ahirwar’s where ample farming hands, aided by a good monsoon, is now turning out to be a silver lining for those who returned home.

Migrant workers planting paddy seedlings in a Bihar farm. Photo credit: Prafulla Kumar Jha.

Official data, as of July 17, shows that kharif crop sowing across India this year is about 21% more than last year, 2019. For some of the crop varieties the country is witnessing a growth in acreage compared to the last year.

For example, while black gram sowing acreage has witnessed a growth of 43.11% this year over last year, pigeon pea (arhar) shot up by 37.74%, finger millet (ragi) upped 45% and ground nut jumped by 56.57%. While rice cultivation has gone up by almost 19%, the overall oilseed crops have seen a 44.75% acreage hike.

The government data seems to resonate the anecdotes from the ground. Sigicherla Chenna Reddy, a farmer in Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh said in his village there is a 40% growth in the land sown when compared to the last year. Reddy claimed that while farmers in his Lakkasamudram village were leaving 40% land uncultivated, this year almost all the farmland has been sowed.

“The pandemic induced uncertainty has pushed even the smallest landholders to cultivate their land to earn, as farms continue to be a good source of food and income,” said Reddy, who has sown groundnut and red gram in his 16 acres of land.

About 1,800 km away from Anantpur, Prafulla Kumar Jha, an agriculture research officer in Bihar’s Aurangabad district agrees about the growth in cultivation and possibility of a bumper harvest due to return of the natives. Jha says, compared to last year, he is witnessing at least a 20% jump in the sowing of paddy in his district this season.

“Bihar’s fertile lands have been facing a labour issue for years due to economic migration,” said Jha. “This time, the pandemic-induced reverse migration has helped the agriculture activities.”

“The availability of ample hands during the ongoing sowing season has boosted the acreage and will automatically up the crop yield,” said Jha.

So, how exactly does the timely sowing and availability of labour impact the crop yield? “Delayed transplanting reduces the number of tillers in a paddy plant,” explained Jha. “More tillers mean higher grain yield.”

“For instance, in a timely transplanted sapling, the plant bears at least seven tillers to 10 tillers while in a late transplanted seedling this number stagnates at two,” he said.

Shyam Sahu, a farmer in Madhubani district of Bihar said, “In our region, a sizeable portion of the people who came back from cities tuned to farming either as farmers or as farm workers.”

“We saw more women participation in agricultural activities in our district this season, a phenomenon new to our region,” he said.

According to official data, Madhubani is one of the 15 districts in India that received more than 1,00,000 migrant workers each during the lockdown. In Madhubani, this number is 1,25,000. Sahu said the cash incentive offered by the government also catalysed a lot of migrant farmers’ interest in farming.

Planting of paddy seedlings in Patiala. Photo credit: Bhagwan Das Gupta.

While states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar witnessed large scale reverse migration, and initially considered it a big challenge (before the returnees got absorbed in agriculture), Punjab witnessed a hike in labour cost due to the absence of the migrant workers.

“The cultivation is going good though we had to spend around 40% more on labour cost,” said Bhagwan Das Gupta, a veteran farmer in Rakhra village of Patiala. Gupta, who has sown paddy in 10 acres of land, said that because of migrant labourer shortage, direct sowing of rice happened in at least 20% area across the region. This percentage is negligible in normal circumstances, he claimed, further adding that some farmers also used machines for the sowing activity.

Tamil Nadu-based farmer VS Arunachalam has a similar story to tell.

“After work reduced due to partial closing of manufacturing units in the state, a lot of industrial workers took up farm work,” he said. At any given point of time, Arunachalam has at least 15 labourers working in his 15-acre organic farms where he is growing paddy, sugarcane, turmeric, banana, guar gum and seasonal vegetables.

Banana cultivation in VS Arunachalam’s Tamil Nadu farm. Photo credit: VS Arunachalam.

IB Pandey, an agricultural scientist said that the growth in pulses cultivation this season augurs well for all.

As per official data, pulses acreage this year is 32% more than last year as of July 17. Pandey said that apart from being an affordable source of protein for the poor, pulse crops are a great soil enhancer and income booster.

“Pulses roots have nodules, which contain symbiotic rhizobium bacteria that can fix nitrogen – it absorbs atmospheric nitrogen for the pulse crop while it is growing,” explained Pandey, also a professor at the Dr Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University in Bihar. “And the unutilised nitrogen is preserved in the soil making it more fertile. Besides, the crop’s low dependence on chemical fertilizers is good for the environment.”

The cost of cultivating pulses is at least 30% cheaper than other cereals. “And when it comes to earnings of farmers, the returns are good,” he said. “For instance, if a farmer sells a kilo of rice for Rs 18, one kilogram of pulse fetches him at least Rs 40.”

“In a state like Bihar, where malnutrition is high, a better pulses harvest will be nutritionally beneficial,” Pandey said giving credit to returning migrants to invest more in pulses.

In India, 38.4% of children under the age of five are stunted, according to national family health survey 4 of the health ministry. In some states, this is even higher than the national average. For example, stunting among the same age group is 48.3% in Bihar, 46.2% in Uttar Pradesh, 45.3% in Jharkhand and 42% in Madhya Pradesh.

Better harvest to boost rural economy

Experts and economists argue that plentiful harvests will have several positives – higher income for farmers, higher income means higher consumption and revival of the economy.

“The rural economy has started showing a positive trend,” said Sunil Sinha, principal economist at Indian Ratings and Research, part of the Fitch Group, a global rating and market analysis organisation. “A good and timely monsoon and reverse migration has boosted the summer crop acreage.”

“A better harvest will improve income and drive consumption of fast-moving consumer goods, motorcycles, tractors and boost the service economy in rural India,” he said.

Bhagwan Das Gupta driving a tractor in his Patiala farm. Photo credit: Bhagwan Das Gupta.

The uptick in tractor sales in recent months shows how agriculture activities have picked up and how rural India is slowly showing signs of better consumption. And a better harvest will push this growth further. For example, Indian tractor manufacturers sold 45,358 tractors in June this year, almost an 11% increase when compared to June 2019. Compare the June sales number of the tractors with May sales, there is a five times growth, shows data from the Federation of Automobile Dealers Association.

Sinha said, rural demand and a good kharif harvest will support the sagging Indian economy but underlined that improvement in urban demand is a necessity to take the economy to a much better situation.

Sahu of Madhubani, said that while hope of a good crop is certainly cheering up farmers, but authorities need to step up efforts to timely procure crops by paying minimum support price, ensure good warehouses for storage, and build food processing units at district levels to take benefit of it and improve the income of farmers and farm workers.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.