Small farmers, labourers among the worst-hit; wheat harvest under cloud
The lockdown in India’s bread basket of Punjab in the wake of the coronavirus disease outbreak (COVID-19) has put its rural economy into an uncertain and desperate situation.
The people of the state, especially in rural areas, are in a state of palpable unrest over issues including harvesting of the standing wheat, unemployed rural labourers, the poultry sector as well as police treatment of the masses amid the lockdown.
Small and marginal farmers as well as farm labourers are the most affected in the state due to the breakdown of supply chains.
“The vegetable sales have plummeted in a big way. There are many instances where people are simply dumping their vegetable produce as they are unable to transport their produce for viable sales,” agriculture economics expert, Gian Singh, said.
“One needs to understand that a vegetable like cauliflower needs to be harvested at an ideal time. If the crop is left standing for just a few days more, it gets destroyed,” he added.
The most important issue that he pointed at was the forthcoming harvest of wheat. There are many questions surrounding the harvest which generally starts around April 10, including the availability of labour, wheat procurement and transportation.
The wheat harvest in Punjab is among the most enormous agricultural operations, not only in India, but in the entire world, as the farmer aims to prepare his fields for the subsequent crop while the government has to ensure that the produce moves safely from mandis to warehouses.
“It needs to be seen how these operations are carried out. While many go in for mechanical harvesting, there are still people who harvest manually. The wheat straw that is procured through manual harvesting, is a better fodder for domestic cattle,” Gian Singh said.
“The government must allow conditional relaxation for wheat harvest while educating the masses on social distancing,” he added. A bumper crop was being expected this year, Singh said, despite unseasonal rains, as the norm for wheat produce was that the more the number of cold days, the greater the yield.
Punjab had produced 18,209,000 tonnes of wheat last year, according to the Economic Survey 2018-19. The state had 3,520,000 hectares under wheat cultivation and the yield per hectare was 5,173 kg.
A comprehensive mandi-wise list was being worked out for procurement of wheat that would be issued in due course, according to a government announcement.
The government needed to ensure that vegetable and milk producers were not harassed in villages and their supply reached the end user in towns and cities, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) leader Gobinder Singh, said.
“The announcements being made by the government must translate into reality on the ground. It also needs to be ensured that the goods being sold through mobile vans do not end up in the black market in villages,” he added.
Along with farm labour, the daily wage earners who travelled daily to nearby towns and cities for manual jobs, were also facing a very tough time, Sanjeev Mintu of Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union told this reporter.
“We visited such households in Upli village near Sangrur and Namol village near Sunam and found that this section of the society is in despair. The question they are asking is ‘How do we fight Corona with empty stomachs?’,” Mintu said.
“Their cans of food grain are empty and the women, who have taken small loans, are anxious about how they would repay these loans. There is also a massive cash crunch in such houses. While the government has announced availability of essentials at fixed rates, these labourers say they cannot afford even these essentials since they have no cash in hand,” he added.
Dairy and poultry
Those into small-time dairy farming have also been badly affected, Mintu said. “While those supplying milk to big plants have some relief, those who deliver small quantities to households in nearby towns are facing a tough time as they are scared of police and the curfew. The closure of veterinary hospitals has further complicated issues,” he said.
Among the most heavily impacted are poultry farmers who are suffering huge losses.
“These losses began with rumours that chicken and eggs cause COVID-19 and people stopped consuming them. Things came to such a pass that chicken was selling at Rs 5 per kilogram. Now the problem has further intensified, with the authorities not permitting the sale amid curfew,” Manpreet Chahal, a poultry farmer from Sangrur, said.
With no feed available and the birds locked down, poultry farmers were looking at a very dismal scenario, Chahal said.
“We do not have ways and means to procure the feed as truckers are reluctant to go out. I am looking at a loss of nothing less than Rs 70 lakh. You can calculate that if I spend Rs 70 for preparing a bird which is not selling at even Rs 0 and I have 50,000 birds, what would be my loss?”
Chahal said many poultry farmers were dumping their birds on the road.
One of the rural population’s major demands has been that police show sensitivity in dealing with farmers going to their fields, women going to collect fodder and milk producers going to deliver to people nearby.
The fear of getting assaulted by the cops, which has multiplied with circulation of numerous videos of curfew violators being thrashed, has played heavily on their minds.
Meanwhile, the state police were facing pressure from wheat farmers for the opening of pesticide markets and shops besides demands from potato growers for safe passage and transportation for supply of their crop to other states, Punjab’s Director General of Police Dinkar Gupta, said.
He said all efforts were being made to resolve these concerns at the earliest and suggestions were being taken from various sections.
Police claimed they had launched innovative and indigenous initiatives across districts to facilitate door-to-door supply of essential goods through strategic tie-ups with Zomato, Swiggy, Verka, Amul, mandi pradhans, chemist associations etc.
“As a result of the initiatives taken by the district police, door-to-door supplies of essential goods like medicines, grocery, eatables have started in many of the districts of the state,” a spokesperson said.
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