The COVID19 lockdown leaves fruit and vegetable farmers in a soup

Coronavirus has left vegetable and fruit cultivators staring at huge losses as one state after another is imposing full or partial lockdowns. Meanwhile, consumers in the cities end up paying exorbitant rates for the fruits and vegetables.

Arvind Shukla
| Updated: May 7th, 2021

The lockdowns have directly hit the farming community as cultivators are unable to sell their produce, or get the right price for their crops.

Hari Om Patwari is under a lot of stress. He has 12 acres (4.85 hectares) of land on which he cultivated watermelons, but despite the rising heat, he has not been able to find too many takers for the fruit, so cooling and popular in summers. 

“If I cannot sell the watermelons within another five or six days, the crop will rot on the field,” Patwari, an inhabitant of Dalah village in Harda district, Madhya Pradesh, told Gaon Connection

As India reels under the second wave of the COVID 19 pandemic that has caused unprecedented despair and loss of lives, many states in the country, including the national capital of Delhi, have decided to impose lockdowns, either total or partial. The Delhi lockdown continues till May 10, while Haryana is on a weeklong lockdown that started on May 3. Besides these, Rajasthan has decided to lock down between May 10 and 24. In Madhya Pradesh there is a total lockdown till May 15. As cases rise, more and more states are imposing a lockdown in order to curb the spread of the contagion.

Watermelon that usually fetched farmers up to Rs 10 a kilogramme was selling for not more than four rupees.

These lockdowns have directly hit the farming community as cultivators are unable to sell their produce, or get the right price for their crops. 

“If I can’t sell the produce, I am done for. If the coronavirus will not kill us, the lockdown will,” Patwari, who has taken a bank loan of six lakhs to cultivate the melons, lamented.   

On May 3, Patwari managed to send one truckload to Bhopal, the state capital that is about 178 kilometres away. It took three days, said Patwari, for the watermelon to sell there. He sold the 10 tonnes of fruit for Rs 53,212, but got very little back from it.  The truck cost him Rs 16,000 and the holding charges were Rs 2,000. “At the end of it I made twenty nine thousand seven hundred and fifty one rupees,” he calculated.  

Also Read: Healthy Returns: Vegetable and fruit cultivation picks up momentum in India

Rakesh Gaindhar, also from Harda, is known to be a progressive farmer. The 35-year-old has reaped considerable benefit from his modern approach to agriculture. But not so in the past year because of the pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. 

In Nashik, Maharashtra, the country’s largest onion producing district, farmers are facing a shortage of labourers. By Arrangement

He cultivates watermelons, green chillies and tomatoes on his 25-acre (10.11 hectares) farm. “I used to get forty to fifty rupees for a kilo of green chillies, now I barely make twenty rupees a kilo,” Gaindhar told Gaon Connection.

Watermelon that usually fetched him up to Rs 10 a kilogramme was selling for not more than four rupees. Tomatoes have not sold for more than Rs 5 a kilogramme, he said.

“My expenditure per acre of land is anything between a lakh and a lakh-and-a half,” he revealed. Before the pandemic, he said he would make enough profit. “But, because of the pandemic, let alone profit, I have not been able to recover even the cultivation cost,” he said. 

Trading losses

About 1,000 kilometres away from Harda, where Patwari and Gaindher are worrying about watermelons, is Kolhapur, Maharashtra, alphonso mango trader Nandakumar Walanju is a worried man. 

“It is a bad situation for mango cultivators and traders. While the export of mangoes is not happening, neither are they selling,” Walanju told Gaon Connection

“In such a situation the farm gate price (what the farmers earn for their produce) drops and the retail price of mangoes go up. Both the farmers and the consumers suffer,” Deepak Chauhan, a Pune-based agro-economist, told Gaon Connection. This is the case with most fruit, vegetable, poultry farmers, he added. 

A bad bargain

“It is not that the consumption of vegetables goes down in the lockdown, but the farmers’ bargaining power definitely suffers,” Chauhan continued. He said it was often only the middleman who benefitted.

This is the second consecutive year that farmers are not getting the deserved remuneration for their produce.  

Also Read: Despite suffering major losses, vegetable farmers in Jharkhand continue to be hopeful

“Everyone is feeling cheated. Farmers are not getting the right price for their produce, agents have no work and consumers end up paying exorbitant rates for the mangoes,” Walanju said.  

Also Read: Maharashtra lockdown: Fresh troubles for Alphonso farmers and trader

According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, the production of vegetables and fruits have gone up during the pandemic. In 2020-21, the area under cultivation of fruit and vegetables is approximately 27.17 million hectares. The estimated production of fruits and vegetables in 2020-21 is pegged at 326.58 million tonnes. However, this has not translated into any gain for the cultivator.

Dinoo is a big farmer who grows onions on his 25-acre land (10.11 hectare), in village Khanpur Mewan village in Alwar district, Rajasthan. “The government has declared that everything would be available to farmers. But neither fertilisers or pesticides are available,” he said. 

Dinoo complained that only medical and provision stores were open. He said he bought a 50 kilogramme sack of Diammonium phosphate that he needed to start his onion nursery, for Rs 2,500. It should not have cost him more than Rs 1,900, he pointed out.  

Dinoo grumbled that a few stores that were open for a little while hardly had any stock because of the lockdown. And if they did, everything was more expensive than usual. “It is ironic that while the price of fertilisers and other things the farmer needs has gone up, he is forced to sell his produce cheaply,” he said.  He also pointed out how the police did not hesitate to use their lathis if they saw people out in the markets.    

Labour shortage

The COVID 19 pandemic and the lockdown have impacted the availability of labour too. 

In Nashik, Maharashtra, the country’s largest onion producing district, farmers are facing a shortage of labourers. 

“This is the time we harvest onions and our farm labourers are usually from the Dang tribal community in Gujarat,” Abhijit Muralidhar Devre from Satana tehsil in Nashik, told Gaon Connection

Devre said that because of the spike n COVID-19 cases, few labourers were coming to do harvest work. “Earlier, we paid up to two hundred and fifty rupees a labourer a day. Now, we pay anything up to three hundred and fifty rupees a day,” Devre said. 

In Uttar Pradesh, Shivam Singh is struggling to harvest his nine acres (3.6 hectares) of mint and 12 acres (4.85 hectares) of watermelon. “I need at least five or six labourers to help me out, but I am not getting them,” he told Gaon Connection. Some labourers that he had paid an advance to, did show up, but he needed more. There was no labour to be had even if he paid Rs 300 to Rs 400 a day, he explained.

Read this report in Hindi