New Delhi: More than a week after the Centre relaxed norms on agriculture and allied activities, farmers have been unable to sell their produce. Lack of harvesters, labour shortage, lacklustre storage facilities, untimely rains and a dying demand are now starting to point towards a supply constraint that may eventually manifest itself much after India expectedly emerges out of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the non-availability of machines and agricultural labour, Ramesh Prasad and his son took half-a-month to harvest their wheat farm and another three days in storing and transporting it to the 'mandi'. They have hardly been able to sell anything for the past two days.
"There is hardly any demand. There are no takers in mandis. Prices have come crashing down," said Prasad, a wheat farmer from Madhya Pradesh.
Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh's Khairpur village in West Greater Noida, farmers had to either return home with their produce or sell them at negligible costs.
Santu Singh, a local farmer in the area, was forced to strike a deal at a quarter of the usual costs.
“I sold chilli at Rs 10 per kilo. Normally, the selling price ranges from Rs 40 to Rs 45 a kilo when you sell on a quintal basis,” he said.
Singh was forced to sell his produce because the cost of transportation is too much to handle for small landholding farmers like him.
There have also been several reports of farmers either setting their crops on fire or using it as animal fodder. Government buying is also yet to gather steam. The lockdown has impacted the pace of procurement, driving prices below the MSP (minimum support price) across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra even as costs incurred due to transport and harvesting have increased.
The lack of procurement is worrisome because it determines what India eats in the year to come. Conceptually, grain stocks consist of three components: operational stocks, buffer stocks, and reserve stocks. Operational stocks are the stocks from current year production meant for the consumption in the year following the harvest. Buffer stocks are meant for price stabilisation, and reserve stocks are held for meeting shortage in supply over normal demand arising due to fall in production during an agriculturally bad year.
India is, however, well off in terms of the food grain it has for this year in case a severe shortage arises. Against the requirement of 214 lakh tonnes of wheat and rice at the beginning of the year on January 1, 2020, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) had 565.11 lakh tonnes, which means roughly two-and-a-half times more than the essential requirement for public distribution. With the new wheat arrivals expected from the first week of April, India has certainly nothing to worry about on the foodgrain front.
In addition, India already has a buffer stock of 30 lakh tonnes of sugar, which the government is planning to raise to 40 lakh tonnes this fiscal. In the case of pulses, the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs has been trying since December to offload 8.47 lakh tonnes from its buffer stock of pulses.
To understand the seriousness of the demand dearth, consider this: a farmer in Karnataka committed suicide last week after being unable to sell his harvest because of the lockdown. Rambhavan Shukla, another farmer from Jari village in UP, committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree over the non-availability of labour for harvesting his wheat crop.
Just as farmers were dealing with the perils of the coronavirus-induced lockdown at a time when harvesting of the Rabi crop is supposed to be at its peak, untimely rains last week across most parts of north India exponentially increased their fears of a crop failure.
Hailstorms hit fields in Punjab, Haryana and parts of UP exactly when wheat and Rabi crops were starting to be harvested.
Immediately after the sudden announcement of the lockdown, migrant labourers had set off for their homes. While some reached, others are still stuck at various camps set up for their stay. As a result, there is shortage of agricultural labour in villages, which has delayed the harvest at a time when the temperature has already started to soar.
According to the International Labour Organization’s estimates, based on the Census 2011 figures, around 24 lakh migrants work in fields across India.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Sunday said migrant labourers will be allowed to travel for work within the state with certain conditions, but they will not be able to cross borders.
“We have permission to harvest during the lockdown, but there’s no labour available. My entire family has been manually harvesting the crop since last week," said Raju Singh, a wheat farmer in MP.
Added to this is the delay in arrival of combine harvester machines that are responsible for more than 85% of the harvesting activities in the country. On an average, farmers said harvesting takes three days using machines. The same activity is performed in a week when agricultural labourers use their bare hands. In the absence of both now, farmers estimate a delay of close to two weeks.
The lack of machinery and labour has also propped up the problem of storage. As a result, farmers have decided to delay harvesting as much as possible in the absence of any directions from the government on how to manage the produce after it is cultivated.
Several farmers' organisations have requested their respective state governments to ensure the availability of combine harvesters that are stuck in various states. They have also sought adequate space in warehouses to store their produce till they get labourers to take it to the market.
Harvester operators from north India usually go to central and western parts of the country during winter to help farmers cultivate wheat there. During this time, they return to states like Punjab, Haryana and UP to help harvest the rabi crop. Farmers in Haryana said many mechanical harvesters are stuck in Maharashtra, Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan due to the lockdown curbs.
Those farmers who are somehow able to harvest their crops and transport them to markets are being greeted with lack of demand in mandis. With most industrial and restaurant activity coming to a standstill, demand has nosedived, resulting in unprecedented dip in prices, especially of perishable goods.
To understand the impact of the pandemic on markets, consider this: the price per quintal of gram in Maharashtra's Latur has dipped to Rs 3,650 whereas the MSP for the crop is Rs 4,875. Similarly in Rajasthan's Alwar, the market price of mustard currently stands at Rs 3,600 per quintal, almost Rs 1,000 less than its MSP.
In Karnataka, tomato prices crashed by over 50%, from Rs 1,290 a quintal last year to Rs 560 now.
The price of ladies fingers are also down by nearly 40%. In Punjab, green chillies, cucumber, capsicum and cabbage are lying dumped at mandis for lack of buyers.
Farmers across Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana said there are hardly any buyers in mandis.
"I have hired carriers by spending double the amount to transport my crops to the mandis but to no use. It has been three days since I found a sizeable buyer," said Mahesh Kumar Singh, a farmer in Haryana.