Every year, early in March, an army of combine harvesters manned by an operator and a foreman, make a long winding journey from the farms of Punjab to the interiors of Madhya Pradesh. By the middle of March, these combine harvesters get down to harvesting the standing crops of wheat in the state. Then they move on to Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, moving district to district, to arrive back in Punjab by the middle of April. Now they work 24x7 on the wheat crops in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana to complete one of the largest agricultural operations anywhere in the world.
This year, a national lockdown is in place to try and slow down the spread of the Novel Coronavirus, but it has created a massive crisis on Indian farms, especially in the northern states. Between 8,000 and 10,000 harvesters and their crew members are stranded where they were before the lockdown, which is largely in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, and there is little likelihood of their being able to return to Punjab in time to harvest the Rabi crop in other states. Wheat, Bengal Gram and mustard, are the primary crops harvested in the ongoing early-to-middle Rabi season in the northern states. Typically, this harvest is completed by the middle of May. With the lockdown, there is great uncertainty whether the combine harvesters of wheat will be able to tackle Punjab’s fourth year straight of bumper crops.
For this reason, farmers across Punjab and Haryana are nervous and working to get tractor-mounted “mini” harvesters working. This crucial period has come with a shortage of farm labour, as lakhs of them have opted to return to their villages the moment the sudden lockdown was announced. This has added to the woes of farmers, especially as there is no end in sight and no clarity on when the farm workers will be able to return.
Sardar Harjeet Singh, who works for the leading Nabha-based agro-manufacturing company, Kartar Agro Industry, says, “We had sent over 200 combine harvesters to Madhya Pradesh this year. But given the lockdown, we do not expect a single one of them to return to Punjab on time to assist in the harvest work here.”
Sardar Harjeet has been in touch with the foremen and others in his teams. They have been telling him that there is a shortage of diesel supplies, which tractors and harvesters run on. The repair shops along the route, where farmers take their vehicles in case of any fault or accident, have also not reopened. Besides, state authorities are getting each worker and driver to undergo a Coronavirus test every time they cross a state boundary. “Getting all these permissions has frightened them off from making the return journey,” says Singh.
Demand for combine harvesters has accelerated during the last decade and this is based on sheer economics. A since harvester can charge a wheat farmer as low as Rs 800 per hectare while a team of farm labourers can cost up to Rs 10,000. But this economic calculation has also been changed by the lockdown, as the present price of a harvester on hire has doubled or more, from Rs 1,600 per hectare on. Even at this price, harvester are not available. “One of my operators told me on 7 April that he had finished harvesting wheat in the Jabalpur district and was now planning to start work in the neighbouring districts of Madhya Pradesh,’’ says Singh.
This shortage can be directly attributed to delays by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government in announcing that agricultural goods are exempt under the Disaster Management Act. For a long time, agricultural services remained off the essential commodities list, which would have allowed their free inter- and intra-state movement even during a lockdown.
The Minister of Home Affairs announced this exemption four days after the lockdown. But by then the damage was done because the supply chain of agricultural products had been disrupted. It is easy to disrupt, but tough to bring things back to normal.
Yogendra Yadav, who runs a politico-socio organisation Swaraj Abhiyan, sums up the predicament of farmers: by the time the government announced the exemption, orders had already been passed down to the thana in-charges. The exemption for agriculture seemed like an after-thought four days later. “This highlights that agriculture is low-priority in the government’s scheme of things,” he says. “Besides, the already cash-strapped farmer is being made to pay more for hiring a combine harvester and also to hire the scarce farm labour,’’ he says.
Gagan Singh, a farmer-cum-harvester operator from near Bathinda in Punjab, who is presently working in Neemuch, in Rajasthan, says, “I am keen to return home to Punjab, but for that I will have to cross several state borders. I have been told by other operators that the state authorities are creating problems for us.”
Farmers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who had ordered combine harvesters and paid for them upfront are facing new challenges—other than the low government relief that has put their Rabi wheat at risk. Despite having forked out Rs 22 lakh, the price of a combine harvester, their purchase is stuck in transit. Now, with state governments pressing for an extension of the lockdown, many of them believe the combine harvester will arrive much after the wheat has been harvested. By then, they say, it will be too late.
Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan have announced procurement of wheat from 2 April onwards, though how successfully they will do this while social distancing has to be practices, is yet to be seen. In Punjab, procurement is likely to being from April 15.
“Twenty per cent of wheat in Punjab will be harvested manually,” says Devinder Sharma, a Punjab-based agriculture policy expert. He is aware that “a sizeable number” of combine harvesters are stuck in Madhya Pradesh. He says that workers tend to live round the year on the bigger farms. Their immediate needs are therefore taken care of, and so they would not have to leave for their native villages due to the lockdown. “But this is not the case with farm labour in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat,” says Sharma.
According to the Economic Survey, 2019-20, during the Rabi marketing season for 2019-2020, 341.33 lakh metric tonnes of wheat was procured.The total wheat production this year is expected to be much higher. Punjab alone produced over 181 lakh metric tonnes wheat last year.
The Punjab government has launched a massive program to create additional space for the Rabi crop, and it has promised to keep in mind the need for social distancing. The paddy crop has been removed from the 2,050 rice mills in order to provide additional space for the wheat. Schools that have cemented compounds are also being converted into market yards in order to take the burden off the state’s 1,820 operational mandis.
“Farmers will be issued coupons specifying the date they can bring their produce to the mandi on,” Sharma informs. Every tractor arriving at the mandi will be allowed to bring only one other accompanying person,” he adds.
Agricultural experts say that the question of locking down on agricultural activities—as the government had, initially—was in the realm of absurdities.
“A cow will continue to give milk. Tomatoes will ripen in fields. Nature does not stop. The government should have made proper arrangements for the farming community before the lockdown,” as Sharma says.
The Haryana government has also sent a proposal to the central government to help decongest mandis. It recommends staggering arrivals, and raising the minimum support price for farmers who agree to delay bringing their produce. This will ensure smoother procurements, senior bureaucrats say. So, farmers who bring their produce between 20 April and 5 June will be offered Rs. 1,925, those who come between 20 April and June 5 Rs. 1,975 and those who come between May 6 and 31 will be paid Rs. 2,050 per quintal.
But experts find this proposal unviable. Farmers are extremely cash-strapped and already depend on arathiyas (commission agents) to give them credit, which pays the wages of workers, buys diesel and pays for hired machinery. It is in order to gain credit that many of them are willing to sell their produce to middlemen at below MSP rates.
The other unexpected blow that farmers are facing is the sharp decline in agricultural products. Ajay Vir Jhakhar, chairman of Bharat Krishi Samaj, says, “There is a problem of demand. Milk purchase has come down by 25% in the last month and farmers are making distress sales. There is less demand for eggs and other poultry products. The demand for vegetables is on a downward spiral too. Restaurants and hotels have closed down and consumers are buying just basic essentials.”
Indian government data shows that around 265 million people are involved in agricultural activities, of whom more than half are agricultural labourers who work on farms or are employed on a daily basis in mandis. Indian farmers have always been in a precarious state. For them, the success of the Rabi crop can ensure a modicum of food security for six months of a year. The lockdown has lowered the threshold of survival even further. One hopes this will not assume calamitous levels in the coming months.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.