Dharmendra Malik, the Bhartiya Kisan Union spokesperson, feels the country is, at present, going through demand, and not supply, crisis. Read his view in the sixth part of Gaon Connection series ‘Corona and Farmers’
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his Mann Ki Baat address: “At this time, everyone is keen to contribute. Look at our farmer brothers and sisters, who besides working day and night in the fields amidst this pandemic, are also worrying about the fact that no one in the country should starve. They are donating vegetables that they are growing in their fields.”
Although the Prime Minister had amply praised the contribution of our farmers, he didn’t elaborate on any concrete plan to compensate for the economic crisis and the loss faced by the farmers during the existing crisis, which has led to disappointment among crores of farmers in the country. The farmers who had toiled upon earth to produce grains in sufficient amounts for the country today have been left to the mercy of the time and the market. At present, the country faces a crisis of not the supply of foodgrains, but of demand.
Baisakhi, the festival of crop harvesting, was a little more special this year. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have brought business activities to a complete halt. This has had an adverse impact on the economy.
However, the farmers were optimistic this Baisakhi (April 13) because they were hoping that the prime minister would announce the opening of the lockdown. This joyous festival of farmers turned mournful when the prime minister declared the further extension of the 21-day lockdown by 19 days. After this announcement, the policymakers suddenly felt that agriculture is the only hope of the economy’s revival. Agriculture contributes about 17 per cent to the country’s economy. Its growth rate is 2.8 per cent.
The farmer is reeling under the economic crisis due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. This year, the farmers were already facing a lot of distress from natural calamities like untimely rains, hailstorm and thunderstorm. Due to this, the vegetables, fruits, milk, poultry, fisheries, and bee farmers in the country are fighting terrible economic challenges. The farmers do not have money to pay the wages for Rabi harvest or for the sowing of the Kharif crop. The lockdown began in India at a time when the Rabi crops were ready for harvesting and also the work for kharif crops had begun. There were numerous reports from within the country whereby the farmers had either given off their perishable crops for free or ploughed them into the fields. The main reason for this was the inability of the fruits and vegetable crops to reach the markets.
There was no provision or facility for their storage in rural areas. The prices of vegetables and fruits fell sharply. All further hope sank with the second lockdown. The main reason for this was the lack of demand and the absence of buyers. The prices of fruits and vegetables have also fallen due to the closure of transport.
Though the government, through the Ministry of Home Affairs, had exempted agriculture-related activities, it is unfortunate that this exemption was barely exercised in reality. All the hopes of the farmers had hedged against harvesting. Coronavirus caused all sorts of difficulties during harvesting in the western and central states and the farming labourers disappeared completely.
Links connecting the markets were broken. Fruits and vegetables rotted away in the fields. According to the Credit Suisse report, the farmers incurred a loss of about Rs 20,000 crore due to the falling of prices and spoilage of crops of fruits and vegetables. The farmers were not able to earn much due to the high transportation costs. So, the farmers destroyed their ready-to-harvest crops. A sudden drop in the milk demand occurred due to the cancellations of events and weddings and other commercial activities.
Due to the non-demand, the price of milk fell to Rs 20 per litre following which the farmers in 10 states, milk dairies and domestic milk producers are losing about Rs 12,000 crore per month. The cost of producing about 1 kg of chicken in poultry is Rs 80, the demand of which has nosedived due to the rumours surrounding coronavirus. The poultry farmers have been buried in debt due to this.
The little hope that farmers had from the Rabi crop also failed as it is also not able to get a good price in the market. Chana, wheat, and mustard — all crops are selling below their support price. The farmers are not getting paid due to the stopping of the export of tea, coffee, cotton and rice. This situation would deteriorate in the near future. Trade and transport are two sides of a coin – one side can’t function if the other fails.
Despite the relaxation for agricultural activities, there were reports of transporters and farmers being subjected to police violence. In Madhya Pradesh, one farmer had died and another had his arm broken due to the beating received from the police. Police did lathicharge upon the farmers selling wheat in a mandi in Madhya Pradesh.
The vegetables are rotting outside the Azadpur mandi – Delhi’s largest and one of the major vegetable mandi in the country — due to the coupon system that is being implemented. Farmers were beaten up by the police on their way to the mandis. Despite the order of the Home Ministry, the farmers are being fined in the name of the passes. At present, there is a supply, and not demand, crisis in the country.
A relief package Rs 1.7 lakh crore was announced by Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26, 2020 on behalf of the government, but in this too, the farmer was sidelined. The farmer was told that under the PM Kisan Samman Fund scheme, Rs 15,841 crore has been released to farmers for the April installment. It talked about benefiting 12 crore farmer households, but ironically, it has not even reached 6 crore families so far. More than 50 lakh farmers of Uttar Pradesh are still waiting to receive it. The same is the situation in other states, including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar.
By abandoning the farmers, the government has not taken any notice of this faithful hardworker till date. The country’s food minister has declared with supreme confidence that there is no need to panic because of the pandemic. The country has advanced storage of up to one year in the form of about 64.6 million tonnes of grain. The farmers, due to whom this feat was achieved, were not even mentioned by the food minister. While the entire world is sitting cooped up inside the house fearing the virus, the farmers are risking their lives to engage in food production for the country. Agriculture is a business which has been suffering losses for a long time. The farmer is a karmic warrior on whose own India is fighting a pandemic like corona today.
It is due to the sincere hardwork and toil of its farmers that India today is able to field coronavirus. Had there been no food reserve in the country, there would have been more deaths due to starvation than the coronavirus. It is ironic of this country that policymakers are promoting the agenda of the international food chain over the agenda of policy decisive farming.
For many decades, governments have not done anything to protect small farms, farmers and food producers. These have been endangered by corporate agricultural industries. The super market has eliminated the market of local farmers. Commodity trading in farming has taken over the global food system, ignoring the principle of food sovereignty.
The COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history as India’s first natural calamity which could not affect starvation in the country despite the decline in food consumption levels. About 30 lakh people were killed during the Bengal famine of 1943. In 1966-67 due to Bihar famine, the amount of calorie consumption per capita of the state was reduced from 2,200 to 1,200 in several areas. In the year 1972-73, there were more than 1.3 lakh deaths in Maharashtra due to drought.
This pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have had a nationwide impact. Rumours and blackmarketing in the country have also failed to register a steep rise in the price of food items. There is no food crisis in the country this time. The problem is the lack of demand in view of the supply due to which fruits, milk and vegetable farmers are in distress. The productive farmer of the country is really suffering. Because of administrative delays, people may be hungry, but they would not die of hunger. At such times, it is also justified to question the policymakers who advocated discontinuing the procurement of foodgrains through the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
The real invisible heroes of this crisis are farmers. Without their efforts, the food which is being distributed through the public distribution system or cooked and served in the detention centre, community kitchens, would not have been possible. Even today, the farmers of the country are working hard towards maintaining an uninterrupted supply of food without any credit as the frontline corona warriors. The farmers are true action warriors who continue to produce food braving all adverse conditions such as rain, drought, floods and even corona.
Last year, when auto companies were announcing the closure of their manufacturing units amid inventory pile-ones, a message was circulating in the WhatsApp groups: “If we can sell our products at Rs 2 instead of Rs 20 a kg, why can’t the auto companies sell a car worth Rs 10 lakh for Rs 2 lakh? If we can tide over our losses, what prevents the industrialists from running their factories? If we can continue to do farming despite sustaining losses for a long time, why can’t industrialists run a loss-making factory for a year?”
There is a clear reason why farmers have it in their blood to survive all odds. Some urban people question why the farmers do not give up cultivation if farming is a loss-making deal. The answer is also very clear that farmers continue to cultivate farming even in adverse circumstances, because they believe it to be their life and do not bother themselves with petty issues like its profitability. Cost, income, profits on capital investment or per capita income are all foreign concepts. The farmers will continue to cultivate as long as they continue to get remunerated at par with their costs and diligence.
On the call of the Prime Minister of the country, the farmers even clapped and banged their plates, but the government has not provided any immediate relief to the farmers. The country should express gratitude to these farming corona warriors that such a large population of the country is able to feed well due to the production of farmers despite the present crisis. The farmers do not need applause and thali beats. At present, the problem is demand related. It is the responsibility of the governments of the country and the states to guarantee the market for agricultural produce. The example of the world’s agriculture is that it cannot be kept alive without the government support.
The government should immediately declare an economic package of Rs 1.5 lakh crore for farmers, equivalent to a total of 5 per cent of the country’s economy. As a second measure, farmers should be supported with one year’s electricity bill, interest on loans and manure, seeds for the next crop. The amount of Kisan Samman Fund should be made Rs 24, 000 per annum. The farmers have to borrow at the interest rate of 3% from moneylenders for kharif sowing which is equal to the annual rate of 36 per cent.
In Uttar Pradesh, the sugarcane farmers have pending payments of about Rs 12,000 crore that needs to be given immediately in view of the epidemic. Even in this situation, the farmers are facing police atrocities while trying to maintain the supply chain. If no immediate relief is given by the government, there may be a steep rise in farmers’ suicides due to the wastage of crops and lack of proper price. In the present times of the corona pandemic, when everything from construction to service is closed, there is only one pillar of India’s economy which gives stability and fighting power to this country, it is the farmer standing in the field.
(The author is a spokesman for the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait) and a member of the Farmers’ Prosperity Commission, Government of Uttar Pradesh. Views are personal)