Season of distress

The lockdown in the middle of the harvest season is bound to have a devastating effect on the State’s economy as most of the COVID-19 “Red Zone” districts lie in western U.P., which accounts for more than half of the State’s overall agricultural production.

Published : Apr 24, 2020 07:00 IST

Shenshar Pal  and his family harvesting wheat at Bilsni village in Bulandshahr district.

Shenshar Pal and his family harvesting wheat at Bilsni village in Bulandshahr district.

ASSESSMENTS in the Uttar Pradesh government in mid April were that the State machinery had achieved a fair amount of success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. As on the morning of April 17, the State’s tally was 796 confirmed cases, 13 deaths and 74 recovered. In terms of the number of confirmed cases, the State stood in the seventh spot. Senior government officials, especially those in the Health and Home Departments, were of the view that the control measures adopted were fairly good, given the fact that Uttar Pradesh is the most populous State in the country.

A senior Home Ministry official told Frontline  that the exodus of migrant workers from Delhi, Gurgaon and other urban centres had a big impact on Uttar Pradesh, especially its vast rural areas. “Considering all this, we are pulling up rather respectably,” he said.

However, one of the major worries in the administration is with regard to the economic impact in the short, medium and long term. Of the nine districts (Agra, Gautam Buddh Nagar, Meerut, Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Saharanpur, Shamli, Firozabad and Moradabad) identified as “Red Zone” with a high incidence of cases, barring Lucknow the rest are in western Uttar Pradesh or in areas contiguous with it.

Since western Uttar Pradesh is practically the driver of the State’s economy, concentration of cases is this region has raised an alarm. For decades, the State has consistently contributed around 20 per cent of the national foodgrain stock and accounted for about 15 per cent of the total livestock population. A large majority of the State’s population survives on farming activities, growing wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds, potatoes and sugarcane. In terms of agricultural output, official data on various parameters suggest that western Uttar Pradesh accounts for more than half of the State’s overall production.

In this context government officials and social, political and economic observers point out that the restrictions placed in the wake of the pandemic and the setbacks suffered by the region as a consequence could cripple the State’s economy. This bleak outlook is not without basis. Frontline had a first-hand experience of the situation on the ground in several parts of the region. It is the harvest season of almost every major produce of the region, ranging from wheat to vegetables such as potato, spinach, carrot and beetroot. Field reports gathered from different parts of the region indicate huge shortfalls in terms of harvesting, procurement and distribution. This in itself is disastrous, but the lack of government support in every one of these operations has made matters worse. There are enough indicators to show that the promises made by the government on various fronts are not being followed up and implemented effectively. More importantly, interventions by government bodies such as the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) are ineffective in giving tangible help to farmers.

Reports from wheat farmers across the region highlight this aspect. A large number of farmers have been unable to hire harvesters or agricultural labour to complete the harvesting on time. The State government had announced a procurement drive for wheat from April 15, but there were no signs of this taking off even two days from that date.

Shenshar Pal, a wheat farmer belonging to Bilsni village in Bulandshahr district, was in the middle of harvesting, along with his wife and son, when Frontline  met him. Pal has access to harvester, but the machine developed a snag and repairs have not been possible because of the lockdown. Agricultural labour, too, was unavailable. As a result, the harvesting operation is running behind schedule.

In the absence of government procurement, Pal and other farmers in the neighbourhood are selling their produce to private procurers at a reduced price of Rs.1,780 a quintal. The government announced a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs.1,925 a quintal. Up to April 17, Pal had sold around 60 quintals to private procurers, resulting in a direct loss of around Rs.8,700 against the MSP. “This is not a small shortfall for medium farmers like me. But, we are braving it because the whole world is going through trying times. We hope that things will turn around soon and that the government will intervene positively to mitigate our suffering.” Similar sentiments are echoed by other wheat farmers. Sarabjeet Singh of Saharanpur flagged a major worry in the farmers’ minds in the context of the delay in government procurement. “With every passing day without government procurement, private procurers will get emboldened to fleece us. The prices per quintal will come down further in such a situation. The government should take note of this at the earliest. Otherwise, we will be done for.”

Bharat Singh, a carrot farmer and truck transport operator of Gaindpur Shaikhpur village in Bulandshahr district, has been hit by a double whammy. His transport operator business is in a shambles since he does not get enough orders to transport produce to the market. On an average, he used to send 15 truckloads of produce to the market in the harvest season. Now he is able to send only two truckloads. This has led to a loss of several thousand rupees every given day. Moreover, the price of his carrot produce slumped dramatically. “Before the lockdown our high-quality red carrots were sold to the market at Rs.25 a kilogramme. Within a day of the lockdown declaration, the price fell to Rs.10 a kg. The second and third quality carrots are normally procured by the sauces, pickles and edible pulp industry. Since those factories are shut down, there are no takers for them. We are now feeding these carrots to cattle.”

The predicament of two Hapur-based beetroot farmers, Ravinder and Sunil, is worse. “A kg of beetroot was sold for up to Rs.20 during the harvest season last year. Now, we are forced to sell them at Rs.2 or Rs.3 a kg. We are resorting to distress sales in order to provide at least a day’s meal to our families,” they said. As marginal farmers, belonging to Dalit communities, Ravinder and Sunil have neither financial back up nor their own land. Their land is taken on lease as are the equipment/machinery required for every farming activity. For their beetroot cultivation they had taken 90 bighas of land (around 15 hectares) on rent for Rs.7,20,000. Since they could not pay the rent, they took a loan from a private moneylender at 36 per cent interest. They pay a monthly interest of Rs.21,000 to him. Cumulatively, the production cost, including the rent, loan interest and other services such as labour, for every kg of beetroot would come to approximately Rs.12. “When we sold it for Rs.15 to Rs.20 we made a marginal profit. You can imagine our situation when we distress sell it at Rs.2 or Rs.3.”

Professor Sudhir Panwar, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader and president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of activists and academics addressing policy on agrarian issues, said marginal farmers were likely to bear the brunt of the economic impact of the COVID crisis. “Put simply, it is horrifying to imagine what this section of the population will go through in the days to come. The government must address the health concerns on a war footing first and parallelly start addressing the economic issues with a special focus on incentives and plans for marginal farmers and agricultural labour. One misstep and we could hurtle towards dark times,” Panwar told Frontline .

Ironically, the price quoted for a kg of beetroot at an outlet of “Safal”—a vegetable and fruit retail chain run by Mother Dairy, affiliated to the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)—in the National Capital Region was Rs.79. The NDDB’s claims on its website that the organisation is “rooted in the conviction that our nation's socio-economic progress lies largely on the development of rural India” and that “the Dairy Board was created to promote, finance and support producer-owned and controlled organisations” and that the “NDDB’s programmes and activities seek to strengthen farmer cooperatives and support national policies that are favourable to the growth of such institutions”. The beetroot farmers of Hapur are not part of the producer-owned and controlled organisations, but does it mean that their distress situation should be exploited? What they sell at Rs.3 gets sold in the consumer market at Rs.79. What are the additional costs that go into this massive increase between procurement and sale? An email sent to Mother Dairy seeking to know the average procurement price of different vegetables and their selling price at “Safal” evoked the following response. “At Safal, we follow a fair price mechanism, which is governed by the principle of offering fair returns to the farmers while ensuring competitive prices to the consumers. It is pertinent to note that the prices of fresh veggies fluctuate widely due to various factors such as arrivals in local market, harvesting, demand, etc.” Interestingly, the list of vegetables and their relative actual prices were not given.

Panwar said suitable steps should be taken to streamline the functioning of agencies such as the NDDB and NABARD to make them adapt themselves better to the requirements of poor and marginal farmers, including dairy and poultry farmers. “Unfortunately, the lockdown period has coincided with the most intense farming operations and economic activities in northern India. In western Uttar Pradesh, while wheat is getting ready for harvesting, the sugarcane season is coming to a close and planting for the next season has to commence. The imposition of lockdown not only halted the supply chain but also farming operations. Sensing the impact of the blockage of the agri-products supply chain, the Central government issued advisories exempting farming operations from the lockdown but with little or no effect, which is evident from the repeated directives to State governments. The stimulus announced by the Central government, including transfer of Rs.2,000 from the Prime Minister’s Kisan Samman Nidhi to the beneficiaries by March 31, and Rs.25,000 crore to NABARD for infusion of liquidity will not improve the situation. 

Indeed, western Uttar Pradesh is at the core of the burning fields of Indian agriculture, which is, by all indications turning into a catastrophic ball of fire.”

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