Covid an opportunity for agri reforms

Covid-19 may have nothing to do with crops, but its outbreak is likely to have a lasting im­pact on farming, especially on the way crops are sown, harvested and disposed of. The labour crunch caused by the out-migration of workers due to this pandemic and the need to observe health precautions at all places have already triggered several modifications in conducting farm operations. Many of these changes can be expected to en­dure even after the eradication of this virus. Prominent among these are: gre­ater mechanisation of land preparation, sowing and harvesting operations; procurement of foodgrains through the co­upon system; deemed market status to warehouses and cold storages; permission for private mandi transactions by farmer producer organisations.

Higher demand for labour-saving devices would spur investment in manufacturing and custom-hiring of farm machinery. Well-advised incentives to these manufacturers would lend further impetus to this trend. Mechanisation would improve overall efficiency and profitability of farming, thanks to greater precision in farm work.

That aside, some novel systems of marketing and official procurement of farm products introduced this year to avoid overcrowding of mandis may also continue in the future. Setting up temporary village-level market yards, allowing direct purchases from the farmers and granting deemed market status to warehouses and cold storages, as been done in many states this year, are amo­ng the systems that would probably be persisted with.

Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have made statutory provisions for establishing wholly-private agricultural markets to offer competition to the existing regulated mandis. This is a game-changer initiative that breaks the states’ monopoly over farm marketing. Besides, the system of issuing coupons to farmers, indicating their turn to bring the produce to the market, may also be pursued in the post-coronavirus era. Some practical glitches in its implementation, noticed this year, can easily be sorted out.

Paddy sowing, another highly labour-intensive activity, is set to undergo a distinct change in several areas. The age-old practice of direct sowing of seeds in the main fields, which was given up after the Green Revolution in favour of transplanting of seedlings in water-logged fields, is expected to stage a noticeable comeback. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and several agricultural universities are counseling farmers to go in for direct planting, particularly in medium- to heavy-textured soils, to save water, labour and time without sacrificing crop yield. Specific devices are now available for direct sowing under different situations, such as zero-tillage system or seed planting in deep-tilled soils or puddled fields. Some of these machines can dispense fertilisers and weedicides along with the seeds in one go.

According to ICAR deputy director-general (extension) A K Singh, field trials on direct paddy planting, carried out by Indian and international farm research centres, have shown encouraging re­sults. It reduces sowing cost by up to Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 a hectare besides offering substantial saving of water. The new Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Re­search Institute is developing basmati rice varieties suited specifically for direct sowing. This is sought to be done by inserting suitable genes in the already popular basmati strains like Pusa Basmati 1121 and Pusa Basmati 1509. This will allow controlling weeds through herbicide spraying even after crop germination.

Moreover, Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to promote crop diversification as well. Labour-intensive and water-guzzling paddy can be replaced with low water-requiring, but equally lucrative crops like maize, cotton, vegetables and summer pulses. Singh feels that this is imperative as about 256 districts of the country are now acutely water-stressed. Maize can be as profitable as rice because of increased de­mand, good market prices and better production technology. Its water re­quirement is just a fraction of that of rice. The cost of inputs is relatively low. Several other crops can also compete with rice if given the needed market support by way of procurement at the minimum support prices. If the constraints posed by Covid-19 can galvanise such desired changes in farming, it would be viewed as a small blessing of this scourge.

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