The global pandemic has added many new terms into our vocabulary. One among them is “front-line workers” such as those in the health sector who are dealing with the crisis firsthand. This includes doctors, healthcare support staff, ASHA and anganwadi workers in the villages, and many other service providers. Another set of front-line workers who are continuing their work and ensuring that there is food security in these trying times are farmers. Their work to grow and harvest our nation’s food supply continues at an unrelenting pace amidst the pandemic.
Agriculture is the backbone of India’s economy, and smallholder farmers constitute the bulk of India’s agrarian population. The agriculture sector employs nearly half of India’s workforce but contributes only 15.8 percent of the GDP. The COVID-19 pandemic may cripple the country’s struggling rural economy, but it cannot override the positive attitude of these heroes on the ground.
“We are farmers. So still we continue to do our work. We too are now making a habit of living with corona,” share farmers in district Alwar, Rajasthan, where the Sehgal Foundation team works to address the needs of farming communities. The teams demonstrate best-management practices and promote farm mechanization, water conservation in agriculture, livestock health and development, and the use of doorstep extension services and other interventions to help improve farmer remuneration.
The rabi crops approached maturity amid the COVID-19 spread. Activities such as harvesting and handling of the produce, including crop movement to the market, continue since agricultural operations are time bound. Farmers followed precautions and safety measures to prevent disease spread, including social distancing, maintaining personal hygiene with hand-washing with soap, wearing face masks and protective clothing, and cleaning implements and machinery. Workers followed these safety measures at every step in the process of field operations, but the farmers could not distance themselves from some of the inherent financial challenges that the pandemic and its lockdown brought.
Higher output, but lower prices
Umardeen, from village Bujaka, Alwar district, is one of many farmers who had a bad spell with harvesting and selling of crops due to COVID and lockdown. He says his wheat could not reach the market with everything closed, and they received extremely low prices from the sale. He and many other farmers have incurred losses due to COVID lockdown. For the harvesting of crops, labor was only available at double the rate. Laborers previously available at Rs 2,000 per bigha for harvesting charged Rs. 4,000 per bigha.
“All our capital is engaged in farming, so we cannot store the crop, nor do we have enough space to store the crop properly. Because of this we had to sell to small traders at rock-bottom prices. This time I have lost 25 to 30 percent in mustard and wheat. The minimum support price of wheat fixed by the government is Rs 1,900 per quintal however, my wheat went for Rs 1,700 per quintal and mustard for Rs 2,700-2800 per quintal, as compared to Rs 4,000 in normal circumstances. Even vegetables like ladyfinger, which we used to sell for Rs 80 per kg, was sold for Rs 8–10 per kg this time.”
Gurnam Singh, village Mubarikpur, district Alwar, says, “This time my crop yield was good. But still we could not get profit in terms of production. I had to sell my wheat crop to the small traders here for Rs 1,600 per quintal, while the support price was Rs 1,900 per quintal, and likewise mustard also went for low. I registered to sell my mustard crop, the second important rabi crop, directly to government, but to no avail. Sowing the kharif crop with high prices of seeds and fertilizers, our input cost has increased considerably.”
Kulwant Singh, also from village Mubarikpur, shares that since there was also a corona patient in our area, a curfew was imposed. “We faced problems to get rations and water, in addition to arranging seeds and fertilizers for sowing the kharif crop. Shops were closed and shopkeepers were charging arbitrary rates due to lack of supply.”
Distress migration (migrants returning to their native villages) has made it an added priority to find better ways to manage the rising burdens related to food security and farmers’ income. Sehgal Foundation will continue to work with farmers and migrants to turn this situation into an opportunity rather than a threat.
(This is the translated version of the article written in Hindi by Anuradha Dubey, field communications associate, Sehgal Foundation.)