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Covid-19 lockdown and the Indian farmer

Apr 11, 2020 17:28 IST

The fields are lush, summer fruits and vegetables are waiting, a bumper crop of wheat is ready for harvest in India, but hobbled by severe labour shortages, and a plummeting demand due to a nationwide lockdown, millions of farmers are staring at huge losses. Economists say the setback caused by Covid-19, will plunge the country’s struggling rural economy into further distress. Although farming has been declared an essential service, and agriculture markets are exempted from the lockdown, the supply chain has been badly hit, with buses and train services suspended and trucks face hurdles in moving across state borders. The breadbasket states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh rely on farm labourers from eastern India, for the crucial harvesting season of the rabi or winter crop, but most of them returned home to their villages after the lockdown began on March 24. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research has advised wheat farmers to postpone their harvest to April 20, but late harvests mean lower yields, reduced returns, and a smaller window to plant next season's crops. Even if farmers somehow manage to harvest, the next struggle they face is taking their produce to market. Most farmers sell produce only at wholesale markets which, in turn, depend on labourers to unload, weigh and pack the grain. The labour shortage would cripple wholesale markets and even bring them to a grinding halt. Despite a Home Ministry order to keep mandis open, many have shut down. The decision on extending the lockdown is yet to be taken, but the implications of the shutdown for the Indian farmer, could indeed be very dire.