COVID-19 Update

Uttar Pradesh: Resilient farmers

Print edition : September 25, 2020

Migrant workers returning to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh, at the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal in New Delhi on August 27. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

An official measures the temperature of applicants appearing for the Bachelor of Education entrance examination in Allahabad on August 9. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

In August, Uttar Pradesh recorded its highest spurt in cases and the government seems clueless about how to handle it, but the people, especially farmers, are learning to cope in surprising ways.

As the monthly tabulation of COVID-19 cases in Uttar Pradesh for August was revealed on September 1, the political leadership of the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State government was constrained to accept what was common knowledge: the pandemic was not under control and was rising in leaps and bounds in the country’s most populous State.

In fact, August recorded the highest spurt in the number of COVID cases since the pandemic was acknowledged officially in March. As many as 1,45,000 of the State’s total of 2,30,414 COVID cases were added in August, amounting to a 63 percentage point increase in the total number of cases in the State. In comparative terms, August recorded an increase of 170 percentage points over July.

The number of deaths were also maximum in August. As many as 1,856 COVID patients died during the month, and the total number of deaths stood at 3,486 on August 31. Interestingly, even though, on an average, 60 COVID-related deaths took place every day in the month, August also marked a drop in the case fatality rate, from 1.9 per cent in July-end to 1.51 per cent by the end of August. Experts, including officials in the State Health Ministry, agree that this drop is, in all probability, on account of the rising rates of infection rather than an actual decrease in the death rate.

These figures are certainly embarrassing to the State government, especially Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who sees himself as an administrator par excellence and has been projected by his powerful public relations team as one who has not only withstood the effects of the pandemic but has overcome it, ensuring public well-being. On its part, the State government has maintained that the average growth rate of cases in the State was consistently below the national average and that the recovery rate was a healthy 75 per cent.

The public relations team of the government also argues that the unpredictable nature of the pandemic has affected combat operations in many parts of the State. “Concerted efforts by the administration has brought the situation under control in western Uttar Pradesh districts such as Baghpat, Hathras, Sambhal and Shamli, which had shown an early spurt in the months of April and May. However, even as these regions seemingly stabilised, the number of cases in places like the State capital Lucknow, the industrial region Kanpur, and eastern Uttar Pradesh districts such as Gorakhpur, Maharajganj, Deoria and Kushinagar shot up, by as much as 10 per cent even though the State average was less than 5 per cent. It is this imbalance that we need to address, and the government is working on it,” a senior Health Ministry official told Frontline.

Field inputs from important centres like Varanasi, Prayagraj and Bareilly indicate that things were not under control in these regions too. The number of cases were rising once again in the last week of August and early September in districts in western Uttar Pradesh such as Meerut, Aligarh and Moradabad despite a marginal drop before August. A major worry for both health-care officials and public health activists is that in two districts close to the National Capital Region (NCR), namely, Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddh Nagar, the disease has not shown signs of abatement during the last three months.

Right from the beginning of the pandemic, it was widely acknowledged by economic affairs experts, senior bureaucrats, social observers, activists and politicians that the situation in the western districts was crucial for the State’s economic survival and well-being. The steady hold of the pandemic in Gautam Buddha Nagar and Ghaziabad as well as the unpredictable fluctuations in regions like Agra, Meerut, Saharanpur and Shamli are perceived as particularly disconcerting. The major agricultural produce from the region includes wheat, rice, pulses, oil seeds, potatoes, sugarcane and seasonal vegetables.

The general consensus among agriculturists, bureaucrats and economic affairs experts about the post-COVID agricultural activity in the region is that while Rabi crop procurement by the State government in the early months of the pandemic was patchy, the farmers had found their own ways of marketing in later months and have managed to hold on without much loss. According to the Bulandshahar-based progressive farmer Colonel (Retd) Subash Chandra Deswal, the impact was not uniform across the sector. “Potato production was on the lower side this season and hence farmers got adequate price in the market. The worst affected were seasonal vegetable farmers and producers of perishable goods. The fact that the majority of these vegetable farmers belong to the lower strata of society, including landless Dalits who lease land to cultivate, aggravated their hardships.”

Deswal’s point of view was endorsed by Dr Sudhir Kumar Panwar, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader from western Uttar Pradesh and president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of academics and activists focussing on issues relating to agriculture. He said that while several factors, including climatic conditions, helped the quantum of production, problems in distribution and marketing caused by the pandemic and administrative mismanagement resulted in pressing liquidity shortage for farmers. Panwar is of the view that the effect of this was bound to increase steadily over the next few months.

Senior officials in the State Finance and Agriculture Ministries agree with this perspective but are not sure how this economic impact will actually pan out. “ One thing that can be stated with certainty is that people have shown tremendous resilience amidst the pandemic and are learning to live with it, dealing with the challenges as they come. This is indeed heartening,” said a Senior State Home Ministry official to Frontline.

This premise seems to be one of the driving factors for the Yogi Adityanath government as it prepares to tackle the emerging situation. On September 1, it embarked on a series of measures as part of Unlock 4.0, limiting lockdown to just to Sundays. The markets are to remain open six days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The government is also deploying special focus teams to spruce up activities in departments like the Agriculture Production Commission and Industrial Development Commission. This is accompanied by an increase in the number of COVID tests, with a special focus on select areas such as industrial hubs and regions of high agricultural activity.

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