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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 lockdown of India to control the spread of COVID-19, announced by PM Narendar Modi on 24 March, is already creating lasting impacts on Indian farmers. Progressive and enterpreneurial small and marginal farmers cultivating perishable commodities are amongst the worst hit. Our interactions with farmers in the states of Telangana and Karnataka, and information sourced from news and print media, show that food supply chains for perishable foods are now completely broken. Here, the Flagship Project 1 team at ICRISAT, Hyderabad, sheds light on the dire impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small holder farmers in India.

The effect of the lockdown has hit the agricultural sector hard. A lack of transport, market shutdowns, labour shortages, strict action by police on transport and the stringent imposition of lockdown by local authorities have put enormous strain on India’s food supply.

Millions of farmers across the country are now dumping their perishable produce; fruits, vegetables and milk are being disposed of into compost pits and irrigation canals. Even if farmers managed to take their produce to the markets, there are fewer wholesale buyers. Large quantities of food are now stuck at the production level of the supply chain in villages. As a result, supply chains have completely broken. Farmers are isolated from wholesale and retail buyers in the cities leading to huge financial losses.

The plight of farmers came quickly

On 31 March the effects of the lockdown suddenly became very stark; a smallholder farmer from Kalburgi district of Karnataka state committed suicide as he was unable to sell his crop. He cultivated watermelon in his three acres of farm, but, due to the nationwide lockdown, the transport service he relied on to get his produce to market meant the fields went unharvested and the crops were left to rot. Local media reported that he had invested huge money, time and effort to grow the watermelon, and that looking at the rotting crop he became depressed and committed suicide. Several farmers in the district have been growing more than 3500 acres of watermelon and more than 1000 acres of papaya for the upcoming summer festival Ramadan, but the sudden lockdown has made their dreams collapse.

Another farmer from Karnataka state, Chikkaballapur district dumped six tractor load of grapes on the roadside after the closure of the market. A lack of buyers, cold storage, processing and transport facilities, has led to several farmers dumping their produce into pits.

The cost of production of grapes averages Rs 2.5-3.5 lakh/acre (£2700-3700/acre). During this period of lockdown it is estimated that grape famers alone will lose around Rs 500-600 crores (£53-64 million) in Chikkaballapur and Bengaluru Rural districts. Similarly, a farmer from Mandya district in Karnataka dumped a truckload of Sapodilla fruits following market shutdown.

Another young farmer from Belagvi Taluk of Karnataka state, who had been growing tomatoes in his two acres of land, has also suffered. Because of strict police action in the village, the non-availability of transport and a fear of COVID-19 contact outside the village, he left his crops unharvested in the field. To grow the crop, he had taken Rs one lakh (£1060) from the regional rural bank as a crop loan:

‘During [the] last Kharif (monsoon season), I lost [the] majority of vegetable crops due to heavy rains. We were in the hope of getting better price this time, but this corona disease pandemic has again made our lives miserable.’

Similarly, a milk vendor of Belagavi district in Karnataka dumped 1500 litres of milk collected from farmers into the irrigation canal citing there is no way to sell the milk during the lockdown.

These are but a few examples of the wide-ranging effects of the lockdown that we have come across. There will be other similar stories playing out across India – colleagues within the TIGR2ESS programme are reporting the same. The scale of the disruption is huge and includes both agricultural and allied sectors leading to massive losses for farmers.

There is, however, more than commodity loss at stake here; the health and safety of farmers and farm labourers must be of prime concern during the pandemic. The Indian government has announced relief measures - a welfare package of Rs 1.7 lakh crores (£18,137 million), but this seems too small to offset the losses the rural poor are experiencing as a result of COVID-19.

Now, in the midst of increasing COVID-19 cases, farmers are fearful that lockdown may continue beyond the current end date of 14 April. Such a scenario would further disrupt transport and affect the next kharif sowing season, through a lack of seeds and fertilisers. This would significantly impact farmers livelihoods even in the next season.

What can the government do to ease the situation?

To fight the pandemic, it is clear that regular markets must be suspended temporarily. These are places where large groups of people gather and spread the virus; maintaining social distance in such places is very difficult so closure is the only option. But there must be more support for the farmers who are suffering as a consequence.

Now is the time for the government to temporarily suspend the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act to engage civil society. Such an act would allow NGOs, farmer’s collectives, corporate companies, welfare associations, religious organisations and Panchayat Raj institutes to buy directly from farmers. These organisations could then safely distribute food at the doorstep of consumers through vegetable vendors at specified locations.

To some extent the above is already happening; Telangana state government has quickly adapted to the pandemic to distribute perishables at consumer’s doorsteps through Mobile Rythu Bazars. There is a great need for all other states to follow suit. The paramilitary could further aid timely distribution of safe and packaged food items to the public to avoid large gathering of consumers at regular markets.

Clear instructions are vital

There is huge information asymmetry existing between the government orders and final lockdown implementation agencies at the district and village level about what constitutes ‘essential services’. This has led to confusion.

The police who are on the front line and control the transport and movement of people do not have enough information and understanding of what is allowed and what is not under ‘essential services’. A boy going to fetch drinking water  and a farmer on his way to his farm were beaten up by police. Such incidents are going viral on social media and have created fear among ‘essential service’ providers. There is an urgent need for mass print and social media campaigns to create awareness among the public and essential staff such as the police about safety measures and ‘essential services’.

The safety of labourers involved in mandis (markets) operations is crucial, as these places generally high-density of people in small places handling lots of perishable produce. There must be screening and safety kits at every mandis. In the absence of such safety measures there is a threat of virus spread at the community level through farmers and traders.

If the broken supply chains for perishables and other food items do not improve and fail to connect with the urban wholesale market, there is every possibility of a shortage of food, particularly among the poor, on one hand, and loss to the producers on the other. Stockpiling of commodities by the rich, as has been seen in other countries, will lead to a rise in prices and create further hardship for those who already have very little.

COVID-19 is going to be a real disaster for the poor and economically vulnerable people who have lost their jobs. If the ancitipated food shortages come to pass, there may be social unrest. Of course, India has sufficient food stock - mainly grains - and there is enough food in the system, the challenge is re-connecting the broken supply chains so that this food reaches those in need.

Blessings in disguise

There is some hope at this time of great uncertainty and disaster. Both during and after the lockdown, innovative supply chain models for perishables and other commodities may emerge which are competitive, inclusive, scalable and sustainable. Supply chains which are able to connect farmers to consumers in the absence of several intermediaries during the pandemic may be robust enough for continued use when this crisis passes, though research to support scaling up would be needed.  

In the medium to long term, there will likely need to be an increase in investments in cold storage facilities and decentralized primary and secondary food processing firms to support small and marginal farmers and to ease the food supply chain. If these investments continued long term they would strengthen supply chains. There is also the chance to think and prepare the best local governance model should a similar pandemic arise in the future.

For now, we watch as the crisis unfolds, and do our best to keep in touch with the communities so affected by the pandemic. We wish to lend our support wherever possible and use our skills and expertise to respond to the new challenges arising on a daily basis.

This blog was written by Dr Ravi Nandi and Dr S. Nedumaran, both working on Flagship Project 1 (Sustainable and Transformative Agrarian and Rural Trajectories, START) at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India.