Doubling of the farmer’s income program initiated and steered by central and state governments will certainly be adversely affected due to the ill effects of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns. All agricultural activities were already feeling the burns of various factors, like unseasonal rainfall, its intensity, and distribution which impacted sowing, normal crop growth, diseases and pest spectrum, quantitative and qualitative yields, and ultimately remuneration received by the farmers. Other factors which were already impacting farming include deteriorating soil health, high crop intensity, imbalanced fertilizers use, depleting soil organic content, monoculturing, irrational use of weedicides and pesticides, uneconomical water use efficiency, depleting underground water table, unfavorable benefit-cost ratio, improper marketing management strategies, poor storage facilities at farmer’s level and at procuring agencies’ level, insufficient food processing facilities, technological gaps, diseases/ pest resistance due to underdose/ overdose usages of pesticides, lacks adaptation level of existing technologies, improper execution of Govt. policies and even region-specific faulty planning as well. Above all, the direct and indirect onslaught of Covid-19 and lockdowns aggravated the problems as if the existing problems farming community were not sufficient.
This instant jolt was given by COVID 19 to the farmers covering almost all the states, for harvesting and threshing of rabi crops, making reach them to procurement marketing venues. As the government tried to make some stop-gap arrangements for procuring grain-produce, wherein a set number of farmers would be present in the grain market at a given point of time to avoid crowding, maintaining the social distancing norms. To minimize shattering of the grains in standing crops, particularly wheat crop due to the fear of accidental fire in the standing crop by electrical sparking, machinery fire or smoker’s negligence, etc; the farmers were compelled to harvest and thresh the crops 2-5 days before actual ripening which affected the yields. It is a common knowledge that due to division and further divisions the landholding size in India has been reducing year on year basis and approximately 85% of the farmers fall in the category of small and marginal. Likewise for household units also the same fact is applied and they do not have much scope for permanent storage of the bulk farm produce.
This is also true relating to Covid-19 impacts that almost all the business activities are almost standing still, however the agricultural production system activities including grain production, milk, meat, fisheries, vegetables, horticultural produce cannot wait indefinitely. It is also a common knowledge that agriculture and allied sectors support directly or indirectly approximately 60% of the Indian population. Consequently, the whole lot is going to be affected by the onslaught of the dreaded virus impact.
It has become a fact that the unorganized casual labor force is majorly from a few Indian states where population growth rate is higher due to low literacy and other co-factors. Due to fear and uncertainty of the Covid-19 period and non-availability of casual jobs, as well as non-availability of permanent residence available for them at their workplace they are moving to their native place. This again has doubled and trebled their miseries as well as of that of farmers. All this is certainly going to heavily erode the Indian Economy in general and farmers in particular.
As of now, the feel of these burns looked temporary, however, its real impact will be realized if the Covid-19 and it’s offshoot lockdown are continued for a longer period. In general, the whole farming community at the national level will be badly impacted; however, its deep impact will be on the agriculturally progressive states, like Punjab and Haryana where major workforce (manpower) is from outside states. The most affected state should be Punjab, where the majority of youth have settled abroad and the inactive elderly population is left in rural Punjab. Due to their old age, they are not in the habit of doing field and menial jobs. Although mechanical field activities are relatively more in Punjab and Haryana, yet manual labor is a must for doing certain jobs. Even for handling the agricultural machinery the laborers, permanent or temporary, are required. As discussed earlier most of the labor force has returned to their native areas; therefore, this will certainly impact the agricultural activities, including total sown area, timely sowing and harvesting of crops, and others.
The ongoing situation will be a fall out on vegetable & fruit production system which is labor-intensive activity; and above all in the production of vegetables and fruits manual labor is a more practical proposition as compared to a mechanical one.
This will leave a cascading effect on the already slow-paced ‘crop diversification program’ run by state and central govt. This is, in particular, true of Indo Gangetic Plains (IGP) including Punjab, Haryana, and rice-wheat system growing areas where this necessary evil was to be broken down due to falling water tables in the said zones.
Crops other than rice and wheat are labor-intensive and as discussed earlier the labor deficient farming communities will be forced to revert back to the rice-wheat cropping system. On the other hand, the incentivized crop diversification program will receive a huge jolt. Under such a situation the farmers will be forced to leave their land unsown, at least a part of it, which will affect the total productivity of the states and nation as well.
Although it is very difficult to guess and pin-point that who will be impacted and in what way, yet the prevailing circumstances may impact different social strata in a number of ways. For instance, the landowners who presently do not work in the fields will start working for survival &sustainability. This will bring many sociological changes. Extravagancy will reduce inculcating the habits of saving, custom hiring patterns, land lease patterns, reduction in litigation, the dignity of labor, attitude towards cleanliness, unnecessary movements from one place to another, etc.
Although all the crops should be affected due to the impact of COVID -19, yet the most affected will be sugarcane, vegetable & horticultural crops, cotton & fresh-flower production. Sugarcane is a labor-intensive crop right from sowing till harvesting. In particular, Maharashtra will be most adversely affected by the want of laborers, who have migrated to their native places. This could also have a bearing on sugar prices. Other sugarcane growing states will also be affected due to migration and paucity of the casual laborer. Likewise, cotton-growing activities, being manual labor-intensive will also be adversely affected, especially picking cotton. In general, this will also leave an impact on production, productivity, and cotton prices.
Vegetables and horticultural crops require manual labourers from day one to the consumption point. Most of the vegetables and fruit crops are perishable and have a very short shelf-life; hence are required to be reached to the consumer in a time-bound manner. If manual labour is not timely available it brings a huge loss to the growers which directly impacts remuneration of the growers, and ultimately the consumer has to pay more price owing to demand-supply principle. Timely transportation of these commodities is another issue that spurts the prices of these commodities for the consumers of far-flung areas. Similarly, the quality of the commodities is badly affected due to such issues.
The most affected agri-activity is the fresh- flower growing industry which has fallen flat owing to the non-availability of the labour force as well as its demand in the local and international markets. Thus, the agriculture sector is going to see a sea change post-COVID-19 era which will redefine it and the consequences of which shall be far-reaching.
Dr. K. R. Dabur
Professor & Dean
Faculty of Agricultural Science