The nationwide lockdown has brought in front many challenges faced by the agriculture sector. At the same time, it has presented numerous opportunities to fix the long-pending reforms the sector has been looking for. Therefore, an impetus is to be provided in upgrading the farm infrastructure, including digitisation and mechanisation to help farmers become self-reliant and bring down labour intensive farm techniques.
While the industrial and service sector was not operational during the lockdown, farmers, in spite of the labour shortage managed to harvest rabi crops and kept the agri supply running for the consumers. While the farmers kept going the extra mile, they had no access to credits, had to throw away produce due to lack of transportation to carry it to mandi or in some cases they had surplus agri-produce due to closure of eateries, restaurants, canteens among others.
As part of COVID-19 relief package, the Modi government announced Rs 1.5 trillion package for farm sector to strengthen infrastructure and logistics for value addition. However, with the ongoing sowing for Kharif season farmers are in dire need of labourers. For weeding, threshing, levellers, ploughing, water lifting devices, tillage along with other field activities, farmers need an additional hand. The non-availability of labour may further have an impact on the crop yield for the next quarter, thus jeopardising food security.
Majority of the labourers are stuck in cities due to the lockdown. In such a scenario, farmers will have to rely on farm machinery and equipment to offset the need of labourers. Also, good quality seeds and other agri inputs along with government assistance needs to be provided to farmers to deal with the negative effects arising out of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimates that the magnitude of inter-state migration in India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 estimates the total number of internal migrants in the country, both inter- and intra-state movement, at 139 million. Moreover, significant rural population migrate to other states and union territories such as Punjab, Haryana, Ladakh to work in the farm-fields. In areas where commercial crops are cultivated, the daily wages are reported to have gone up substantially as the labourers required for harvesting have left for their native places amid coronavirus crisis.
In such difficult times, the responsibility to tackle the farm related challenges lies with farmers, governments, public and private industry. To begin with, farm mechanisation can supplement lack of labour. Farmers must be urged to adopt digital and mechanised ways to grow crops. Different government schemes such as the Sub-Mission on Agricultural Mechanisation (SMAM) Rashtriya Krish Vikas Yojana (RKVY), Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) and National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) can be used to get financial assistance and guidance to buy or rent farm machinery and equipment. For effective implementation of social distancing, the Union Agriculture Ministry has already issued guidelines for smooth supply of such machinery to farmers.
n addition, it has given exemptions till end of this year on different tests that are required to procure tractors, power tillers, combine harvesters and other self-propelled agricultural machinery. Further, with workers returning to their villages from urban centres, there is an opportunity to use this workforce for pre and post-harvest management, processing industries and building rural infrastructure. This will largely help in mitigating the labour unavailability and improving rural unemployment.
The impact of COVID-19 is going to affect all sectors and thus the global economy. Agriculture sector will not be an exception. The Government of India however predicted that the farm sector will grow at least 3 percent in 2020-21 and this poised growth will need farmers to move from labour-intensive farming techniques to technological advanced farm mechanisation. Additionally, buying good quality seeds, optimum usage of fertilisers and pesticides, robust farm linkage and market access through agri reforms, assistance from public and private industry to provide access to solutions, finances and giving the farmers a better price for their produce will help them rebound quickly from the loss.
(Views expressed in the article are author’s own.)