COVID-19

Farming in a crisis

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Procurement of cotton at the MIDC in Buttibori, Nagpur, at the end of two months of lockdown on May 17, 2020. Marathwada and Vidarbha have about 44,00,000 hectares under cotton, most of which was destroyed owing to pink bollworm infestation and unseasonal rain last year. Photo: S. SUDARSHAN

A farmer plucking gerbera flowers at a farm at Vahangaon in Pune district. In the absence of labour, transportation and market, gerbera growers were forced to dump their entire harvest into the compost heap this season. Photo: the hindu archives

Mangoes felled by cyclonic wind at Gondhalpada near Alibaug in Raigad district in the Konkan in June 2020. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

If agriculture was the only sector to grow during the first wave of the pandemic, the picture is not so rosy now in Maharashtra as the COVID restrictions and the impact of two cyclones put Alphonso mango farmers of the Konkan, pulses growers and floriculturists in a spot.

MANGO cultivation has been a lucrative business in Maharashtra’s coastal Sindhudurg district for decades. In a good year, the king of fruits has been known to bolster the Konkan region’s economy by Rs.3,000 crore. But not so in the last two seasons. Cultivation of Alphonso (aaphus), the mango variety grown in the Konkan, has been affected ever since Cyclone Nisarga struck the coastal region in 2020. Although the cyclone came towards the end of the crop season, the damage it caused to the orchards continued to be felt this year when Cyclone Tauktae ravaged the western coast in May. The trees that survived Nisarga yielded fruit but much of the produce was lost to Tauktae’s fury.

Ajit Belhekar, who has 30 acres (12 hectares) of prime aaphus orchards in Sindhudurg, said: “Farmers have been reeling under one disaster or the other. If it is not weather conditions, then it is the effect of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.”

The area under mango cultivation in the Konkan region is around 300,000 ha. Seventy per cent of the harvested fruit is for the domestic market. The rest is exported. Normally, this is a time of great prosperity with vigorous buying and selling operations, with the offer price opening at Rs.1,000 a dozen at the beginning of the mango season and tapering off to Rs.400 a dozen towards the close of the season. While many fruit farmers (the sector is unorganised) banded together to start a direct-to-home sale, there is no doubt that the season has been a bad one financially. Belhekar rues the absence of government support, especially for transportation and marketing of the produce, during the lockdown. He is yet to calculate his losses but says that like most farmers, he too sustains himself partially on loans, and the thought of paying these off is weighing heavily on him.

Mango farmers are proud of the fact that they did not have to depend heavily on the government all these years. Belhekar says: “Our business is something we have built up and aaphus has been kind to us.” But now there is a growing demand for help from the government. Farmers’ groups are asking the State to write off 50 per cent of their outstanding loans. The government is yet to respond.

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In the first wave of the pandemic, at the national level, agriculture was actually the only sector to have shown a positive growth of 3.4 per cent at constant pricing. But the sector is expected to face the brunt of the crisis caused by the second wave of the pandemic. COVID started in urban areas and with the first lockdown it was largely contained there. As the lockdown restrictions were lifted or eased in some places, large groups of migrant workers and their families began to return to their villages. With this, the pandemic spread to rural India. The first wave spared the villages and thus agriculture. The second wave impacted the rabi season and the expected third is likely to wash out the kharif season.

Although farmers harvested the rabi crop, sales were affected by the disruption to supply chain networks and limited access to wholesale markets. Yet the produce did somehow make it to the primary and secondary markets. An official in the Agriculture Department in Mantralaya said that this year warehouses in many States were not as full as they would normally be. It is felt that in States where government procurement of produce is high farmers will be able to keep their heads above water.

In Maharashtra, soybeans, cotton and vegetable farmers and those in the dairy business, horticulture and floriculture have been hit badly.

Soybean cultivators particularly had a rough time as unseasonal rain last year affected the harvest. With the crop destroyed, they were unable to stock up seeds which, in turn, meant spending money for seed purchase. Farmers are more comfortable using seeds from their home-grown stock and believe that purchased seeds are substandard. Indeed, in the last season, owing to the poor yield soybean farmers had to opt for more than one sowing.

Cotton farmers in Wardha and Yavatmal districts have had to contend with pink bollworm attacks on their crop. Cotton is a cash crop and provides even small and medium farmers with sufficient returns. In a good year, farmers can get about 25 quintals of cotton an acre. Marathwada and Vidarbha have about 44,00,000 ha under cotton, most of which was destroyed by pink bollworm infestation and unseasonal rain last year. Whatever cotton could be saved is not fetching the farmers a fair price. Traders are exploiting the situation by paying lower than the minimum support price (MSP).

The MSP for cotton in the last season was fixed at Rs.5,825 a quintal at government procurement centres. Procurement is usually done during Diwali after farmers register themselves for sale of cotton. But in the last season, the actual procurement started only in November. Fearful of losing the harvest to moisture or pests, farmers went to the open market and suffered a heavy loss because traders were giving only about Rs.4,300 a quintal.

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During the first lockdown, which began in March 2020, vegetable growers were hit badly, with many having to dump their vegetables since there were no takers. The situation improved late last year but access to seeds and fertilizers continues to be a hurdle.

The dairy industry faced similar difficulties. With commercial establishments closed, the demand came only from domestic users and this meant a 30 per cent fall in the demand for milk. Dairy farmers who used to get around Rs.30 a litre, now get only around Rs.20 a litre.

QUICK RETURNS FROM FLORICULTURE

Over the years, many farmers have incorporated floriculture into their cropping patterns because of the quick yield and the assured purchase of flowers largely from urban buyers. In comparison to crops, flowering plants require minimum inputs but give healthy returns. For example, gerbera can fetch between Rs.5 and Rs.7 a flower. Considering that one acre (0.4 hectare) can yield about 5,000 gerbera flowers the profits are enticing. The lockdown literally crushed floriculture. For one, floriculture is a labour-intensive sector. In the absence of labour for production, transportation of the produce and the market (people were willing to spend on flowers but there were no florists), gerbera growers were forced to dump their entire harvest into the compost heap. It is the same story for rose and jasmine growers. These are the other two major flowers grown for commercial purposes in the State. Maharashtra realised the potential of floriculture in the 1990s and was the first State to have a policy in place for floriculture. Flower growers are given subsidies but even these will not cover the huge losses they have had to bear since last year.

Concerns for kharif season

Maharashtra’s farmers have many concerns ahead of the kharif season for which sowing starts in June. At the top of the list is a demand for good quality seeds and fertilizers which they are hoping will be available at last year’s rate. Pre-kharif field preparation has suffered a huge setback since farm labourers are not available. Until June 1 inter-district movement was regulated and restricted to emergency reasons only. Farm labourers, who are usually migrant workers, were unable to move from district to district. Successive lockdowns have prevented agricultural support facilities, including banks, Agricultural Produce Market Committees and district agricultural centres, from providing crucial services in the pre-sowing and sowing periods.

The lockdown has brought into focus some of the controversial farm policies of the government. When restrictions on the import of pulses were lifted, farmers had protested that the move would affect domestic producers. The government preferred to see it as a free market move. In an attempt to cut losses and circumvent the vagaries of the weather, many farmers had either shifted to or included pulses in their cultivation for quick turnaround harvests, but the surplus of pulses in the market dashed their hopes. Moong (green gram), tur (pigeon pea) and urad (black gram) dals are in surplus in the market and as such their prices are low.

It was the same with soybean. A sympathetic official in the State Agriculture Department admitted that although soybean sold at “Rs.7,500 a quintal in the open market last year the profits went to the traders”. Farmers did not get more than Rs.3,000 a quintal and small and marginal farmers probably got much less. There is a high probability that the same will occur this season too.

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The future of farmers is tied to government policies. Even though the government might be willing to assist them financially, where will the money come from? A vast amount of the State government’s share of goods and services tax (GST) has been held up by the Centre. This was one of the points Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray brought up at his June 8 meeting in New Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Farmers who availed themselves of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government’s loan waiver scheme got some relief. According to a report from the State-level Bankers’ Committee, loans totalling Rs.20,109 crore have been waived by the State government. But most of the farmers continue to be in debt because of losses incurred in the last two seasons.

Interestingly, though farmers suffered huge setbacks, agriculture seems to have received a boost. More and more people have turned to cultivation in a small or major way. The COVID-necessitated lockdown has made people devote time to start kitchen gardens to sustain themselves, while others have returned to family-owned farms. Rural-urban migration has been slightly reversed because the lockdown and job losses in cities have forced migrants to return to their homes in the villages and take up agriculture again. This forced self-employment should be encouraged and supported by the government since it can lead to rural regeneration, which successive governments have talked about but have not been able to set in motion.

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