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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


The 21-day long COVID-19 lockdown in India, which is now set to continue until 3 May, has undoubtedly severed market linkages. Farmers are desperate for actions that can avoid wiping out their incomes. This blog, from Dr Rekha Bhangaonkar of Flagship Project 6, highlights some initiatives put in place to rescue the situation.

COVID-19 lockdown has severed market linkages in India. Farmers are desperately trying to avoid dumping their produce, whereas the consumers are struggling to secure groceries. While not all is perfect, various local institutions – block and village level administrative departments (agriculture, revenue and the police departments, to name a few), the panchayats (a village-level locally elected self-governing body), as well as civil societies have risen to the challenge and taken steps to provide alternatives. These are a few examples from the state of Maharashtra.

E-passes for transporting produce

One of the restrictions that came down very quickly with the announcement of the lockdown was on the movement of vehicles. A special permit (e-pass) has been made mandatory for transportation of agricultural produce. The pass is obtained by email, but only if an online application made to the Regional Transport Office is successful. An approval has to be stamped on its printed copy by the police department, for it to be valid.

With the majority being small farmers (approximately 60%), producing small quantities, such changes in the functioning implied either distress selling or dumping of their produce. To alleviate the farmers’ plight, the agricultural department in the district of Chandrapur has been working at many levels. First, they reached out to every fruit and vegetable growing farmer to estimate the total agricultural production; second, they encouraged and facilitated farmers to organise into small groups; and finally, they matched the group’s requirement with a suitable vehicle enabling transportation of the produce to designated markets. One of the officials of the department, Mr. Govind Deshmukh, Agriculture Assistant, Department of Agriculture, Chandrapur, told me:

“I ensure that the krishi sevaks (village agricultural workers) collate information from every village on what has been produced and harvested … I ensure that they get an e-pass … the permission has to come from the police department….”

Local markets

A quick and successful sale of crops is crucial to a horticultural farmer’s income; and, being one meant choosing a high income, high investment, and hence a high risk strategy. The first half of a calendar year is typically a busy period for them, as they get ready to harvest fruits such as grapes and watermelon. In the district of Jalna, the agricultural department is assisting the setting up of make-shift stalls for the sale of these seasonal fruits. Designated spots for the stalls are identified and information on their location, opening hours and days is disseminated to the public through announcements, WhatsApp messages, and text messages. Mr. Mahesh Bhise, Technical Assistant, Department of Agriculture, Jalna told me:

“Farmers can report their estimated produce to the agricultural officer… they then provide information about markets where it could be sold… or extend assistance for setting up stalls.”

This quick-fix has been able to relieve some pressure of dumping agricultural produce. Mr. Pandit Wasre, Agriculture Engineer, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Jalna, told me:

“Farmers have been able to sell 80% of their produce… [the] government has set up stalls to help the farmers … [but] of course the price they are receiving is half of what they were expecting…”

Such support from the agricultural department is happening despite fruits and vegetables not having been traded in the APMCs (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) since 2016.

Farm-to-home model

This initiative came as a respite for consumers, particularly urban and non-farming households. Newspapers are increasingly reporting about the growing popularity of direct sales - a “farm-to-home” model. The restrictions in the movement of vehicles, and closure or partial functioning of the wholesale markets and the sudden paucity of middle men and traders is persuading the farmers to find ways of reaching the market.

Turning this challenge into an opportunity, farmers are honing their entrepreneurial skills and engaging in the direct sales of their agricultural produce to the doorstep of the consumers, with the help of a few wholesalers. Further, vendors who have been supported by farmer producer companies or similar farmer groups have been able to provide direct services to larger number of households as consumers are able to directly place orders through social media applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Not only has this model contributed towards de-congesting the market, the share of returns are high enough to compensate the additional effort involved in making direct sales. Mrs Nimisha Ravikumar, an educator from Mumbai told me:

“I am unable to place my online orders, the waiting list is too long… they are also catering to group orders only… Now I place order with the vendor… he has a fixed basket of vegetables and fruits… yes, there is no choice on the pick of vegetables, but the quality is good and the prices are fair.”

Are these changes here to stay?

The state of Maharashtra is the worst affected by the pandemic. With more than 110 million people and an average population density of 370 people per square kilometre, the local institutions, the government and NGOs seem to be effective in tackling demanding situations. What leads to the alignment of political and administrative organisations and the people’s will during arduous circumstances, as we are experiencing now, is unclear; nevertheless, they are creating new means that have the potential to become the mainstay of the food supply chain, beyond this crisis as well.

By continuing to follow the e-pass system, the traceability of agricultural supply chains could be increased. Farmers may find more value in collaborating and trading as a group, and the required early network may be being laid down now. Local markets can encourage both crop diversification and production for the local market and the farm-to-home model is an opportunity to plug the leakages in farm income.

Ironically, in this calamitous situation which is having significant ramifications for rural livelihoods, the steps taken to tackle the current problems show signs of a more hopeful and robust food system emerging, that have the potential to address the longstanding issues with agricultural markets.

Dr Rekha Bhangaonkar is a Post-doctoral Research Associate for TIGR2ESS, working at the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge.