Rabi output, an anticipated all-time high, seems to be staring at an uncertain future because of an acute shortage of labour and machines to harvest the crops and manage the produce in the fields and market yards. The government has, no doubt, lifted all curbs on agriculture-related activities and support services to facilitate unhindered harvesting, marketing, and the upkeep of the produce, but normalcy is still elusive. The farmers are not finding enough hands to do the fieldwork due to the outflow of migratory labour after the declaration of national shutdown. Official grain procurement operations, too, are in disarray due to the paucity of workers for cleaning, weighing, bag-filling, loading and unloading the stocks. On top of that, the northwestern region, where a sizeable part of the ripened and even harvested wheat and other crops is still lying in the fields, is facing a constant threat of unseasonal rain, which can spoil the produce. The fear, therefore, is that part of the output might go waste for want of timely gathering, marketing, and transportation to the storehouses or consumption points.
Sadly, the unease on this count is not confined to the country’s key bread bowl of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh. It spans the country. Reports from Maharashtra indicate that nearly one-third of the rabi vegetables and fruits might remain unharvested or ploughed back into the fields. In Madhya Pradesh, where crop harvesting was already underway when the Covid-19 struck, part of the harvested crop is still awaiting procurement by official agencies. In Punjab and Haryana, major contributors of wheat to the central grain pool, harvesting is yet to gather momentum. Though the bulk of the crop in this area is cut by combine-harvesters, many of these appliances are lying idle for want of spare parts and drivers. These are worrisome issues calling for urgent attention.
To tide over the workforce crunch, the farm leaders and state governments have urged the Centre to allow the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) labour to work on the farmers’ fields, with the latter sharing part of their wages. The suggestion merits consideration. The government has done well to allow the labourers held up in relief camps to work on the fields within the host states after proper health screening. It should also facilitate the return of the migratory workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with due safeguards. They will be needed for kharif sowing as well.
This aside, procuring foodgrains substantially is vital this year to provide price support to farmers and refill the official grain coffers to sustain additional food supplies to the lockdown-affected people. One way to do so, without overcrowding the mandis, could be to incentivise deferred sales by farmers by offering them higher prices in the post-marketing season. They can be assisted in creating temporary grain storage sheds at their farms or homes for this purpose. The other way could be to set up purchase centres near villages for direct buys from the growers as is being done in the case of procuring pulses and oilseeds in states such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Haryana. However, adequate precautions against the Covid-19 scourge would be imperative even in these makeshift markets.