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

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


Ground-level evidence from Tamil Nadu on the sudden disruption of supply chains for both non-perishable and perishable commodities has pointed to the adverse effects of COVID-19 on farming and farmers’ livelihoods. In Thanjavur, known as the ‘granary of south India’, and Pudukottai and Villupuram districts of Tamil Nadu state, farmers are unable to sell their produce. Without adequate storage facilities, they are staring not just at losses, but also lack of liquidity to prepare for the next planting season. In the absence of a market, or storage, many have not bothered to harvest the crop.

Apart from a loss of income, the present situation could potentially contribute to pest and disease attacks, or fungal infections, affecting the standing crop, but equally soil health. This is likely to intensify the usual constraints of inadequate access to quality seeds, extension services, assured markets and price instability, or credit support that a majority of small-holders in India experience.

However, 20 days after the announcement of national lockdown (in force from midnight of 24 March 2020), we also see a ray of hope; farmers’ organisations are leveraging the collective power of their members to restore supply chains.

Farmers’ collectives have acted quickly

The M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has promoted two Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu, focusing on sustainable agricultural development and dairy farming respectively. Set up in 2011 and 2016, these FPOs now have 1056 (686 men and 370 women) and 927 (325 men and 602 women) members. Although women are part of both the FPOs, given their higher participation in dairy farming they are better represented as both members (65%) and Board of Directors (77%) in the dairy FPO.

Mr. Selvam, a small holder-cum-farmer coordinator in the agriculture FPO in Dindigul district noted, “The lack of access to inputs like fertilizers and pesticides are affecting important agricultural operations. I continuously received calls from farmers from 25 March onwards, enquiring about the purchase of pesticides to control sucking pests, as all services and inputs shops were closed. This is a big menace in vegetables especially as the temperature is rising”. He ensured the supply of pesticides, bioinputs, pheromone traps et cetera from the FPO’s store. This has given some assurance to both FPO members and non-members about the potential of a collective in dealing with catastrophe.

Another farmer and FPO share-holder, Mr. Ganesh from Karisalpatti village, had cultivated maize in 0.8 ha of land. The crop was at harvesting stage when the lockdown was announced. He could not access a thresher, nor farm workers for harvesting and post-harvest operations. As the lockdown is for 21 days, he was worried and approached the FPO.

On 28 March 2020, the Government of Tamil Nadu issued guidelines allowing for the movement of agricultural produce with permission from district officials and the police. Using this opportunity, the FPO received necessary approvals from the Deputy Director (Agribusiness and Marketing) to use farm machinery and transport and sell grains. By 1 April 15 metric tons of maize had been sold and payments received by the farmers.

The FPO President, Mr. Arokyiasamy explained, “It is only because of our previous experience in aggregation and good institutional linkages with diverse actors, we could address this challenge in a timely manner”. They are now continuing to procure cotton and chickpea.

Mr. Anand and Mr. Subramanian of Kittampatti village are amongst the many small-holders from this region who cultivate vegetables such as snakegourd, bottlegourd, tomato, brinjal, moringa, ivy gourd, greens, lablab and bitter gourd. In normal times, collection agents sent vehicles (mini goods carrier) to the farmers’ fields to procure the vegetables and transport them to the main market.

Marketing became a problem post-lockdown. For a few days, they sold some vegetables in and around the villages. On 30 March 2020, following the government’s guidelines, they started selling vegetables in the ‘farmers market’ in the nearby town. Subsequently, on 6 April 2020, the government announced selling of vegetables through mobile vans. With the support of the FPO, they have now additionally started selling a ½ kg ‘vegetable bag’ comprising a variety of vegetables to support a family for a week.

Women face additional difficulties

Despite such positive stories, difficulties persist for many households headed by women. One of our field coordinators reported that women farmers are facing difficulties in marketing as they are unable to take their products to the market without public transportation. Even the mobile van based retail marketing is limited to a few villages.

Dairy farmers too have been affected by the lockdown. Ms. Amudha, a smallholder from Samiyarpatti said, “Though milk is protected under the essential commodities act, the local milk vendors refused to buy milk, we lost income up to INR 200 to 235 (GBP 2.20 to 2.60) per day and this has affected our household’s money flow”. Amudha has three animals and didn’t know what to do with 9 litres of milk on a daily basis. Initially, she sold milk in her village, but could not collect any money, as most of the buyers were her relatives. She faced a loss in income.

However, Ms. Muthu from Maniyakarmpatti, a member of the dairy FPO, had a better experience. A dairy farmer, with two animals, she also serves as operator of the milk collection unit of the FPO. She says, “Our company has a buy back arrangement with a private milk processer, so even during this challenging period, we are able to sell 3200 litres per day. The only problem is a 10% reduction in price”. Despite this marginal decrease, the members are happy that they have access to assured markets and payments.

Collectives could turn the tide on lockdown

The above cases clearly show the advantages of collectives, and their ability to negotiate at least some support for the members during this period of crisis. The Founder of MSSRF, Professor M. S Swaminathan, has consistently maintained that “There is a need for farmers to get together and work collectively, in whatever institutional form, whether cooperatives or farmer companies, in order to realise the benefits of scale. Farmers organisations are key, whether for community harvesting, storage, marketing or processing”.

As of March 2019, 7374 FPOs are operational across India. Several state governments are making efforts to upscale FPOs to strengthen the business approach in agriculture. We hope that these small beginnings will gain in strength in the coming days to enable these FPOs can restore supply chains and ensure livelihood security for smallholders.

This blog was written by R. Rengalakshmi (Director Ecotechnology, M.S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai) and Nitya Rao (Professor, School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK), both members of TIGR2ESS Flagship Project 1.