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  • Writer's pictureZia Haq

Lockdown bites rural economy

The coronavirus pandemic has upended farming, harvest to sowing

A rice farm. Photo: Pexels

Zia Haq

The coronavirus lockdown has hardened life for farmers during the ongoing harvest season as authorities enforce new rules to stagger crop sales in chaotic mandis or markets, where it is easy for the novel coronavirus to spread.

Social distancing rules have doubled the time and labour required to clear harvested stocks, farmers in Punjab and Haryna, two of the country’s largest producers of food, say.

Cultivators are in the middle of winter-sown harvesting. Two key winter crops being harvested now, wheat and oilseeds such as mustard, account for nearly three-fourths of seasonal farm incomes.

Authorities in Haryana and Punjab, two food-bowl states, have started issuing coupons or permits to farmers for ferrying grains to markets, which are being run with fewer staff. These trade stamps are being issued to framers through commission agents, who act as intermediaries in the supply chain.

Farmers in these states with harvests must move their grains at specified date and timings to contract sales at markets regulated under the Agriculture Produce Market Committee Act.

“Earlier, it was easy to harvest field after field. Now, you can’t harvest all of your crop at one go. There’s no storage space on my farm,” Jaipal Singh Nain of Haryana’s Mukarpur village said, pointing to what he calls is a “trolley limit” imposed by authorities.

Officials are permitting no more than 50-60 quintals (100kg each), nearly as much as a tractor-pulled trolley or carriage can hold, Nain said.

Farmers said they did not mind practising social distancing, but want governments to compensate them. “Two days of rain last week has spoiled nearly 25% of my wheat. The government should announce higher bonuses for wheat,” said Nirmal Singh, a farmer from Punjab’s Muktsar.

Labour costs have doubled because this means farmers are now being required to first hold the harvested crops at their end before transporting them in state-regulated markets or mandis on specified dates.

Punjab is looking to harvest nearly 14 million tonne of wheat, as India eyes a bumper harvest of the winter staple. The state has set up over 3500 market yards to eliminate crowding, while Haryana has set up nearly 2000.

Since procurement, which refers to the government’s buying of the produce at federally fixed minimum support price, is staggered, both Haryana and Punjab will extend the date by which operations will be wrapped up, an official requesting anonymity said.

“Of total wheat sown in 31 million hectares, 63-67% has already been harvested in the country,” the official said.

Winter pulses were sown in 16 million hectares, official estimates show. Of these, harvesting has been completed for gram, lentil, urad, mung and field peas, the official cited above said. Sugarcane harvesting has been also been completed in states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Punjab.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times

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