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With over 50 lakh people affected and two lakh losing their lives globally, the corona virus pandemic is Hollywood’s destructive alien personified. The nationwide lockdown is continuing for more than two months now and the economy has been below the belt. The backbone of the Indian economy and its crowning glory, the service sector, has been badly hit, while sectors such as manufacturing are still in a nascent stage in India. The situation is such that even in the next 3-4 months, we may not be able to go back to a situation that resembles the time of March 2020 or before. Therefore, it is unlikely that the services sector will be able to swing back in full force as the lockdown eases with improvement in the transmission of the infection. Amid all these, the standing crops in the fields were initially overlooked, but thanks to the prompt government measures, all activities pertaining to agriculture have been exempted from the restrictions imposed from the lockdown 1.0.
Catalyst of economic revival
Agriculture contributes about 17 percent to Indian gross domestic products (GDP). Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India. The 70 percent of rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood. The biggest concern during the initial days of the lockdown was the closure or low business or risk of infection in the farmers’ markets that catered to nearly 70 percent of the farmers. None of the activities in farming and allied sectors require air conditioned rooms where people breathe over one another, thereby increasing the risk of this highly contagious disease. However, its constant battle against skewed monsoon and erratic rainfall, extreme natural events, interrupted supply chains and fuel inflation affect the prospects of this primary sector and earnings of the farmers. All this can be addressed by ensuring the bumper Rabi crop harvested this year gets its right market and price – according to some estimates, this year, it is likely to fetch Rs 8 lakh crore i.e. about 4 percent of the GDP.
The agro and allied industries should receive additional support to ensure they are functional so as to help the farmers channelise their harvest and prevent them from damage as well as fetch the right value. Besides, due to the social distancing norms and migration of labourers, agro-centric industries such as farm machinery and agrochemicals will play a bigger role in the coming Kharif season, enabling farmers to do the necessary work without much dependence on labour. Needless to mention the combine harvester played a crucial role in harvesting the Rabi crop which was facing the threat of dying on field due to lack of farm labourers.
With the pandemic settling fear in the hearts of everyone and farmers are no exceptions. It is unlikely that they will go to the APMCs anytime soon. This is a perfect opportunity to revive the lax response to the government’s move to introduce and improve the uptake of e-NAMs (e-National Agricultural Markets). Though only around 600 mandis are enrolled in the e-NAM system, the scope is enormous, provided their performance is improved to encourage sponsors to raise their bids and compete to enroll farmers while farmers need to become digitally adept to take advantage of this. Secondly, there is an urgent need to create an ecosystem of well-positioned and well-equipped warehouses across the country to help farmers save the crops to the time when there will be no harvest in spite of enough demand. Apart from enabling profitable access to the market, these storages can play an important role in facilitating the access of crops to the food processing and packaging units, increasing farmers income as well as reviving the economy.
However, this will require a better road network – the current total network of highways (state and national) is 265,100 kms, according to the figures available in ‘Statistical Year Book India 2017’. Out of this, 263,263 kms is surfaced while out of a total of Panchayati Raj and Rural Roads of 1,831,043 kms and 2,437,255 kms, respectively, only 986,075 kms and 1,486,069 kms, respectively, have been surfaced or concretised.
India has been an agrarian country since time immemorial. Its glacier-fed rivers of the north and copious rain in the south have endowed with harvest that is enough for its people. However, this pandemic has taught us that only being humane can save the human race. Therefore, it is on the people and the government it has chosen to ensure that everyone is taken care of by ensuring agriculture is taken care of.
(Views expressed in the article are author’s own.)