Saving agri sector from Covid-19

When most sectors of the economy are adversely hit by the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, agriculture could not remain who­lly unaffected. But the government’s prompt move to exempt all agriculture-related activities from the restrictions imposed under the lockdown has helped to mitigate, though not totally ward off, the damage to the farm economy.

The most noticeable fallout of the curbs that continue to haunt the farm sector is the labour crunch caused by the aberrant movement of migratory labour. The usual inflow of nomadic workforce into the country’s key northwestern rabi belt during the harvesting and sowing seasons could not occur this year due to sealing of inter-state borders and the scare of the Covid-19 virus. Even the daily workers of urban areas, including the national capital region, who normally shift to the countryside in this season to benefit from the crop harvesting-driven spike in agricultural wages, chose not to do so this year. They have, instead, opted to head towards their native places in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere.

The availability of transport vehicles had also dwindled in the initial stages of the lockdown as many trucks got held up at inter-state borders because they carried non-essential goods. But the situation is gradually improving after the government eased cargo-related restrictions on their movement.

The Covid-19 menace has, indeed, come at a critical time when the rabi crops are either ready for reaping or are heading toward maturity. In fact, gathering of crops like mustard, lentil, maize and chillies has already commenced. The two major rabi crops — wheat and gram (chickpea) — are in the final stages of their growth. Any interruption in the movement of men and material at this stage is bound to prove costly.

Realising the importance of timely completion of vital farm operations like harvesting, marketing and the upkeep of the crop produce, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has come out with an elaborate set of guidelines for farmers, farm labourers and other stakeholders. The broad objectives of these advisories are to save the farm workers from catching the coronavirus and preventing them from spreading it further; and to minimise the impact of this pandemic on Indian agriculture. The national as well as the state-specific advisories have been translated into 15 languages and circulated in the form of an e-book.

For the main rabi crop of wheat, the ICAR has advised deferring the harvest till around April 20 to buy time to sort out labour- and logistics-related issues. According to ICAR director-general Trilochan Mohapatra, the ripening of wheat crop is likely to be delayed this year by 10 to 15 days as the temperature in most parts of the wheat-growing region has remained below normal till the beginning of April. So, delaying harvesting till the third week of April would not cause any significant loss in output. This would, in fact, let the Food Corporation of India, state grain purchasing agencies and parastatals make the necessary preparations for the procurement and subsequent management of the procured grains.

The precautionary measures against Covid-19 range from simple personal safety steps, such as social distancing, frequent hand washing and the use of face masks and protective clothing, to regular sanitisation of farm implements and machinery, including combine harvesters, tractors and other equipment. Even the material used for packing and carting the gathered products, such as gunny bags and buckets, are recommended to be disinfected by dipping them in 5 per cent neem solution.

Farmers have been advised to limit the number of labourers working simultaneously in the fields to avoid congestion. Preferably, only the known workers should be engaged after ascertaining their medical history. The workers should maintain a safe distance of around one metre between themselves while working, taking rest, eating meals or loading and unloading the goods. These precautions need to be observed throughout the chain of activities from harvesting to the wholesale and retail marketing of farm produce. Otherwise, the Covid-19 would have an upper hand.

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