Farmers have also benefited from direct linkages with e-commerce platforms like Zomato and Swiggy. More such partnerships will need to be encouraged so growers can realise the price of their produce.
- By Saurabh Garg
The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has stormed the global economy, with unprecedented impact. By comparison to some countries, India faced the brunt of the disease late although the effect has been as keenly felt in most sectors. The agriculture and allied sector, one of the mainstays of the economy, was severely influenced. The announcement of the nationwide lockdown in March intended to prevent the spread of the virus was a necessary step but it also brought many economic activities, including agriculture, to a temporary halt.
In Odisha, the government set up early actions for the management and control of COVID-19. The State Crisis Management Committee comprising senior officials of various departments, was formed on March 4 for intersectoral coordination and management of the virus. An important lesson from the pandemic has been the need for a strategic shift in focus from an input-centric policy to a more holistic approach that goes from the input side of farming, including the availability of seeds, fertilisers and equipment, to the post-harvest phase.
The lockdown threw up challenges of availability of seeds and fertilisers. Other constraints were supply of sowing equipment for hire, restrictions on mobility of labour, transport and logistics disruptions and limited functioning of financial institutions. At the same time, worries about the disease and the lockdown also impacted the harvesting of the higher value rabi crops. Demand plummeted and compounding fears were misgivings about poultry, marine, eggs and dairy products that people saw as potential cause for zoonotic-based transmission.
The government introduced immediate remedial measures both at the institutional and ground level to arrest this slide. A slew of reforms, beginning with the classification of the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment (DA&FE) as a critical department, aimed at restoring farmer confidence and expediting post-harvest activities was set in motion. An extensive information and communication campaign was carried on media and social media to dispel unfounded fears and doubts in people’s minds about Odisha’s wet markets and poultry and meat produce. Soon prices of these products were back to normal market rates.
At the heart of this recovery was a decentralised way of functioning where a three-tier system of officials at the district, block and panchayat level were charged with raising awareness about COVID-19 among farmers. Complementing the institutional redrawing was the state’s response to making markets work better so farmers could get value for their produce. Allowing local markets to operate within the norms of social distancing and including mandis in eNAM and other portals to ensure better price realisation by directly selling to buyers benefited over 55,000 farmer families.
Increasing the loan target for the kharif season for farmers to Rs. 9,000 crore from Rs. 7,500 crore ensured that migrant and returnee labour as well as women self-help groups and marginal farmers were also included in the process of recovery.
In order to ensure that the shortage of labour did not impact the rabi produce, DA&FE encouraged farmers to use combine harvesters and allowed inter-district movement even during the lockdown besides starting procurement from the beginning of May. Reskilling of workers and hiring drivers of mining equipment from mineral-rich districts helped in ensuring harvesting was done in time.
Farming inputs were provided on a regular basis through a concerted effort that includes the Ama Krushi Call Centre. Timely interventions like allowing unfettered movement of agricultural labour in vehicles with uitilisation of up to 40% capacity and construction of over one lakh ponds mean rural employment was generated and returning migrant workers were also given a chance at earning a livelihood.
The Odisha experience can be extrapolated to a national level, where the pandemic has given us reason to ponder and rethink our priorities in the A&A sector. Technology and market interventions where the private sector plays a role will make a difference to our level of crisis preparedness. States like Odisha moving towards horticulture-based commodities could benefit from perishable goods promotion. Farmers have also benefited from direct linkages with e-commerce platforms like Zomato and Swiggy. More such partnerships will need to be encouraged so growers can realise the price of their produce.
A great deal of emphasis is being laid on the pre-harvest areas of farming, and rightly so. However, what the pandemic has shown is the equal need of policies that posit farmers’ welfare and protect just price realisation of farm produce. We must ensure that we create a demand-based process that nudges the agriculture and allied sector towards growth. The crisis has brought with it lessons, we must heed them.
- Saurabh Garg is Principal Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment, Government of Odisha. Views are personal.