From plate to plough: Deaths, destitution and democracy

India must use the corona-crisis to reform the agri-marketing system by abolishing the APMC Act, promoting e-NAM, and allowing warehouses to double up as mandis.

From plate to plough: Deaths, destitution and democracy

It is painful to see the number of deaths globally due to Covid-19 racing toward six-digit figures, with Italy and the US topping the list, both with five-digit figures.  In India, the number of deaths is still in the low three digit figure range. But, we don’t know the real extent of infection in the country, and, consequently, that of possible deaths, as our testing is very limited. So far, India has tested a little over a lakh people in a population of 1.35 billion. What our cumulative testing number is today is roughly what the US is doing every day. No wonder, each day, the US is discovering a lot of new patients, and also recording an increasing number of deaths.

The Chinese numbers for patients infected and deaths recorded, too, are suspect as there is no free media, or people’s voice.  It is well known now that the Chinese knew about the novel coronavirus (or SARS CoV2) in November/ December 2019, when one of their own doctors, Li Wenliang, blew the whistle. But, his voice was muzzled by local authorities. Li himself died from this virus. But, what this indicates is that the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, a remnant of the political system of the 19th century, is a misfit in the globalised world of 21st century. It is this incongruence of an outdated political system with the globalised world of today that has inflicted a huge cost on humanity. It may be interesting to know that in China, even asking a simple question about the amount of grain stock in the country can land one in deep trouble because grain stock figures are state secrets!

In India, we take pride in our democracy, no matter how flawed it is. It is the media, the fourth pillar of democracy, that raised the issue of migrant labourers when the prime minister suddenly announced a  21-day nation-wide lockdown. The front page images of stranded migrant workers walking long distances to their homes made it clear that the administration was not prepared for this. They had not done their homework well. They are now reacting to this crisis, which has led to large scale destitution. Better late than never!

Interestingly, the central government even went to the Supreme Court asking to control media reports creating panic. Anything that is not palatable to the government can be termed as “panic-creatiing”! Luckily, the Court did not side with the government on this.

It is worth remembering that it is because of the strength of the democratic set-up, with free media, that Independent India never faced any large-scale starvation deaths of the likes of the 1943 Bengal famine, which claimed an estimated 1.5-3 million lives.

This needs to be juxtaposed with China’s authoritarian regime under Chairman Mao Zedong, wherein 30 million people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), and the world did not come to know much about it as there was no free press.

However, what the Indian media has still not flagged is the trouble brewing in the villages. Most migrant workers come from farming families. Because of significant disruption in supply chains as a result of the three-week lockdown, farmers are stuck with large produce, especially of perishables like milk, fruits and vegetables, flowers, even poultry meat and eggs. Due to this glut at the farm level, farm prices are collapsing, pushing farmers into destitution, and many farmers are dumping milk and vegetables on roads.

With procurement season for rabi crops having started, the mandi system will choke, and the social distancing that is necessary to beat Covid 19 will go for a toss, if immediate steps are not taken to organise procurement operations in an orderly manner. Wisdom lies in converting this crisis into an opportunity for reforming the country’s agri-marketing system.

Here are a few suggestions that may help to put the agri-system on an efficient path:

Abolish/reframe the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) Act, and encourage direct buying of agri-produce from farmers/farmer producer organisations (FPOs).

The companies, processors, organised retailers, exporters, consumer groups, etc, that buy directly from FPOs need not pay any market fee as they do not avail of the facilities of APMC yards;  Warehouses can also be designated as markets, and the warehouse receipt system should be scaled up; the government must encourage the private sector to open mandis with modern infrastructure, capping commissions.

Encourage futures trading by allowing banking finance to hedge for commodity price risks.

Promote the electronic National Agricultural Market (e-NAM) through proper assaying and grading of the produce, and setting up a dispute settlement mechanism. Rope in major logistics players for delivery of goods.

Stagger procurement through coupons, and incentives of additional bonus for farmers to bring produce to the market after May 10, or so.

Increase PM-Kisan amount from `6,000 to at least `10,000 per farming family to partially compensate them for their losses.

Besides these, I feel, as the leader of world’s largest democracy, prime minister Narendra Modi would benefit from cues taken from the US president, Donald Trump, the leader of the world’s oldest democracy, if he (1) leads from the front by holding daily press briefings; and (2) announces a country-wide relief package of 8-10% of GDP.

Once the fire-fighting is over, India needs to evaluate the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) role in this fiasco. The January 14 tweet by WHO stating, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCOV) identified in #Wuhan, #China” now looks totally bizarre, and misleading. No wonder, this stirred a fury in the global community and a sparked off slew of allegations against the WHO, especially its chief, Tedros Adhanom, of either being incompetent or acting at the behest of the Chinese government.

US president Trump openly said in one of his daily press briefings that the WHO is “China-centric”, and even threatened to cut American contributions to the organisation.  Whatever the real facts and causes of this disaster are, it is clear that the WHO has failed in its duty to raise a timely alarm, and to recommend freezing of all transportation to and from Wuhan, thereby letting this Wuhan virus, the dreaded SARS CoV2 become a global pandemic.

In the post-Covid-19 world, India must ask for fundamental reforms in the United Nations system, including in the WHO, making it more transparent, competent, and accountable to all the nations of this planet, to serve their interests.

(The writer is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture, ICRIER. Views are personal)

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