COVID-19 AND THE DISTRESSED FARMER: A PARADIGM SHIFT IN OUR FARMING METHODS BECOMES THE NEED OF THE HOUR
Agriculture plays a vital role in India’s economy. 54.6% of the total workforce is engaged in agricultural and allied sector activities, and accounts for 17.1% of the country’s Gross Value Added (GVA) for the year 2017-18. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected all walks of life, and has shown a record decline in the national GDP for April-June Quarter (Q1) by 23.9%. In this analytical essay, we will be examining how the global health crisis has affected the Indian farmers, the various reforms brought in by the government to enable the 140 million farm households across the country to effectively cope with this adversity, and how incorporating a farm-system-for-nutrition approach becomes the need of the hour. To conclude, we will postulate as to how the country’s agricultural landscape must shift after this pandemic.
Impacts of COVID-19 on the Indian agricultural landscape.
We can acknowledge seven main impacts COVID-19 has had on the agricultural sector in India. The first visible impact has been on the rural supply chain disruption owing to the interstate travel restrictions, and difficult to obtain truck permits. Secondly, due to widespread shutdown of restaurants and hotels, farmers’ produce has had a vast sales loss. Thirdly, the unavailability of sowing and harvesting merchandise like seeds, tractors, fertilizers have had a direct impact on farming practices. The fourth impact is on the landless agricultural labourers that used to be previously employed on a task to task basis by land owners, and due to lack of farming opportunities, are being left behind to fend for themselves as most government policies and empowerment schemes do not reach them. The fifth impact is due to the closing of international ports that previously facilitated export of vegetation. India exported $39 billion worth of agricultural products in 2013, and was the seventh largest agricultural exporter worldwide, and the sixth largest net exporter. The sixth impact is on the MSMEs (Micro, small and Medium Enterprises). These consist of small industry units, companies/buyers, and stores that manipulate a respectable size stock, and hire numerous direct and indirect employees. Due to lack of consumption, these units have been witnessing large scale shut downs, and numerous personnel have lost their jobs, with no clear idea of when they will be employed again. The final impact is the prediction of a weak consumption trend following the pandemic, since most of the citizenry will make it their primary objective to secure a viable source of income, and limit their spending patterns. This will affect the farmers involved with non-essential crops like nuts, mushrooms and spices like saffron.
Dr. Arumugam, in his article elaborating the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Indian agriculture setting, has articulated seven direct effects the health crisis has had on the agro-market:
- Interruptions in the acquirement of nourishment grains by government organizations,
- Disturbances in the assortment of harvests from the homesteads by private dealers,
- A lack of laborers to collect the rabi crop,
- A deficiency of drivers in the transportation area,
- Barricades in the development of rural products over the significant expressways,
- Conclusion or restricted tasks of APMC mandis,
- Shutdowns in the retail farming markets. These elements have prompted an emergency in yield of various crops also.
The worst affected in the pandemic, according to many studies, are the farmers who are involved in the production of perishable crops, since they had difficulty in storing them in hygienic condition due to government restrictions at storage units, the congested conditions in Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) or mandis, and lack of effective transport options.
Mitigation measures employed by the government
The government has employed various new schemes identifying the problems that the farmers are facing in the wake of the pandemic. Early on in the lockdown period, the Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs of India Nirmala Sitharaman declared an INR 1.7 trillion package, to protect the vulnerable sections (including farmers) from the adverse impacts of the pandemic. Among other benefits, it contained an advance release of INR 2000 to bank accounts of farmers as income support under PM-KISAN scheme. The Government also raised the wage rate for workers engaged under the MGNREGA, world’s largest wage guarantee scheme. In special view of protecting the vulnerable and poor, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (Prime Minister’s scheme for welfare of the poor), has been announced. Additional grain allotments to registered beneficiaries were also announced for the coming annual quarter. Cash and food assistance to persons engaged in the informal sector, mostly migrant laborers, have also been announced for which a separate PM-CARES (Prime Minister Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) trust fund was created.
The significance of implementing a farm system for nutrition approach
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has identified four areas in the framework developed for disaster risk reduction to reduce the impact of disasters on food and nutrition security – enabling environment, early warning and safeguards, prevention and mitigation measures, and preparedness to respond. Checking the current agricultural distress through the lens of this framework becomes relevant, since the pandemic has exposed the fragility of the world’s food and land use system. Resilient food frameworks that depend on the sustainable utilization of natural assets must be advanced as a counteraction and relief measure against such crises. Farm-System-for-Nutrition (FSN) is an example of such a food-based, nutrition-sensitive approach. M. S. Swaminathan described the FSN as: “The introduction of agricultural remedies to the nutritional maladies prevailing in an area through mainstreaming nutritional criteria in the selection of the components of a farming system involving crops, farm animals and wherever feasible, fish”. The FSN is a decentralized, inclusive approach that facilitates location specific, nutrition based, sustainable farming methods that can support smallholder farm families, even in times of distress. An FSN study experiment was conducted from 2013 to 2018 by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). They studied close to 1200 households located at two agro-ecologically different locations that had a prevalence of undernutrition due to dominant consumption of cereals and lacked produce in other food groups. They encouraged and helped implement the cultivation of region specific millets, pulses, vegetables, and demonstrated economic viability through on-farm trails. Within three years, there was an increase in dietary diversity in the households and in addition to being nutritionally dense, millets and pulses were also more sustainable during the climate changes and rainfed farming conditions. Building on the study, agricultural universities in different states of India are now being engaged with, to set up demonstrations of the FSN approach.
The COVID-19 pandemic ought to be viewed as a reminder to mankind to reflect, re-evaluate and redesign food frameworks that are safe, healthy, sustainable, and advantageous to all. A location specific farm-system-for-nutrition approach, based on sustainable use of natural resources and local agri-food value chains can help improve household diet diversity and address nutrition deficiencies. The Report on Global Food Crises 2020 calls for support to ensure the continuous functioning of local food markets, value chains and agri-food systems in food crisis contexts, including support to food processing, transport, marketing and strengthening of local producers’ groups. The food-based methodology can improve readiness and flexibility of communities to withstand the test presented by emergencies in general, and COVID19 specifically.