Covid-19: Survey highlights apathy towards farmers’ cause

Budget 2021 agriculture
The way forward could be to maintain a credible database of tenant farmers to enable them avail the benefits of various schemes including the minimum support price.

By Aditi Sawant and Pravin Jadhav

The importance of agriculture in the Indian economy has been felt strongly after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. While most of the industries have been completely shut down, agriculture sector is the only hope for the economy. Millions of skilled and unskilled workers are falling back on agriculture and farming as the last resort. However, it has been observed that the urgent concerns of agriculture and farming sector are not addressed by the government during the lockdown. A study was conducted among farmers from 14 districts of Maharashtra — Ahmednagar, Amaravati, Jalgaon, Latur, Pune, Satara, Thane, Washim, Akola, Hingoli, Kolhapur, Nashik, Sangali, Wardha.

In Maharashtra, farmers cultivate various crops such as potato, cotton, oilseeds, rice, wheat, jawar, soybean, sugarcane and sunflower. The survey shows that almost 32% farmers cultivate soybean which has emerged as the most preferred crop in recent years. Cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and potatoes are less preferred due to high cost of cultivation and irregular monsoons. However, excess sowing and production of soybean will not remain remunerative in future. This calls for government intervention and guidance to farmers for crop diversification and help in sowing decisions before monsoon.

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The land holding per person is another concern. The survey shows that 59.2% of the respondents hold less than 5 acres of land and 4.1% below 1 acre. Barely 16.3% hold 5-10 acres of land and 20.4% hold above 5 acres. Small land holdings will be a concern as many city-based migrants workers shift back to agriculture. As the situation is unlikely to improve, the employment issue of the migrants might develop into a serious problem in the near future. In this scenario, Gram panchayat could help by procuring agriculture machinery like tractors, thrashers, harvesters as well as doing bulk purchase of agriculture inputs to make agriculture cost effective and viable.

The survey shows 88% people in rural Maharashtra are dependent on farming for livelihood. Around 74.3% farmers considered animal husbandry as the second best alternative and 25.7 % preferred horticulture as a source of income. This shows farmers lack diversification in cultivation and focus only on limited varieties of crops. There is a need to look for new and diversified businesses such as medicinal plants, bee-keeping, pearl farming and organic farming. Farmers should do soil testing and grow diversified varieties of crops to increase yield and income.

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The survey shows 93.9% of the respondents have smart phones. However, many farmers cannot afford smartphones. Considering the importance of smartphones in the current situation, the government should consider giving subsidies on the purchase of smartphones. Some farmers have taken loans for buying smartphones for their children’s education. The government should offer a centralised app for mobilephones to connect directly with the farmers and inform them about government schemes and marketing avenues. It has been observed that the farmers who have benefited had direct contact with government and bank officials. Gram panchayats can take the responsibility for training farmers for handling smartphones and in other important activities. Through smartphone, the government can also promote internet banking.

The sudden announcement of lockdown triggered a major crisis for the economy. Around 42% farmers complained that they did not get seeds on time while 58% had to pay extra amounts for purchasing seeds. It is also observed that seed sellers took undue advantage of the situation and charged farmers differently as per their paying capacity. There was a wide variation in the prices of seeds — around 40.5% farmers paid 5-10 % extra, 21.6% farmers paid 10-20 extra and 8.1% farmers paid 20-50% extra. Government intervention in such situations is highly recommended to keep prices under check.

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Around 62% of the farmers lamented that they have not got fertilizers during lockdown and among them 53.1% paid extra amount for fertilizers. This has increased the cost of cultivation along with risk and uncertainty. Government has to ensure farmers regular and timely supply of seeds and fertilizer at reasonable prices. Around 78.3% farmers said they did not get direct transfer benefits from the government. About 60% farmers were able to get agriculture machinery such as tractors on rent. Farmers paid extra 50 % as a rent for agriculture machinery, while 61.2% farmers failed to get bullocks on time and were forced to postpone the farming schedule.

Almost 81.6 % farmers did not get labourers in cultivation season. Around 83.7% paid extra amounts for getting agriculture labourers on time — of which 32.6% paid 10-20 % extra for labourers. This increased the cost of farmers by manifold as labour shortage hit Maharashtra that depends on agriculture labourers from other states. Due to transport restrictions, workers got stuck at their native places. The workers who went back to their villages were quarantined for 2 weeks, stopping them from farming activities. This aggravated the labour shortage for the state’s farmers.

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Availability of capital is another major concern for farmers. Around 70% of the farmers did not get adequate capital for cultivation. Around 37.1% got funds from nationalised banks, 25.7% got funds from relatives and friends while 8.6 % got funds from private money lenders and regional co-operative banks.

It has been observed that a majority of farmers are dependent on city-based relatives for additional source of income. Around 77.1% farmers said this source of income from cities was disrupted during the lockdown. Around 79.2% farmers said city-based relatives have returned to villages and 52.1% said migrated relatives put financial burden on them. To accommodate this extra manpower, the government should develop rural infrastructure and industries on an urgent basis. Around 85.7% farmers did not get transport facility while 73.5% paid extra money for transport. However, the government should have provided bus / railway services to transport agriculture products.

The farmers are badly affected by the sudden decline in demand for agriculture goods. Around 73.5% said the demand for their produce has come down significantly. Around 93.6% farmers did not get just price for their produce, 53.1% saw wide fluctuations in prices. It has been observed that middle men benefitted from wide fluctuations in prices and not the farmers. In this case, large-scale government intervention is expected by farmers. There should be a central portal where farmers can connect directly with the consumers. Owing to this, 75% farmers faced the declining profit while only 10.4% farmers benefitted from an increase in profit. Around 14.6 % saw no change in profits.

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As per the survey, 51.2% farmers were troubled by travel restrictions between districts and 20.9% faced difficulty in getting e-passes. Nearly 16.3 % farmers did not get e-passes and 4.7% didn’t get any information from the government on e-passes. Around 68.8% of the farmers didn’t apply for e-pass. This indicates that the government has not made any public announcement regarding e-passes and therefore, most farmers has not applied for it. The government should communicate any change in policies in the post-lockdown period on a daily basis to farmers through gram panchayats or directly through messages to mobile phones.

Supply of essential goods was permitted during the lockdown. Around 20.5% farmers complained about non-availability of markets, while around 37.5 % tried to sell directly in the cities. Around 63.8% poor and marginal farmers did not get timely help from agents to sell their goods in the market. Around 11.4% complained about cheating and forgery in the markets by dealers, while 15.9% faced damage to their products due to various reasons. About 32.6% farmers sold their produce in the local markets, 27.9% through agents and 2.3% did not sell at all. To resolve the problem of market access and direct connect between farmers and consumers, the government needs to develop an online portal on an urgent basis and should take steps to make it user friendly. It should also promote online modes of payment and direct transfer of payment to farmers’ bank accounts.

The study reveals that most of the drivers were quarantined after visiting markets in cities, 15.9% were discouraged and harassed by local villagers, 13.6% said either they or their relatives or friends were infected by coronavirus, 13.6% were harassed by police and 2.3% complained about the non-availability of e-passes. If a Covid infection is detected in a village, only the patient’s house should be sealed, instead of closing the entire village. This will ensure that other farmers do not have any problem in buying medicines, fertilisers and essential items.

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Around 72.3% people didn’t receive any help from the government. But some farmers acknowledged positive steps by the government during the lockdown. Around 12.8% farmers got seeds and fertilisers at reasonable prices, 2.1% got transport to send their products to warehouses. 4.3% got help to connect to consumers, 2.1% managed to get e-passes, crop insurance and help in finding markets for their products. Overall support from the government is negligible considering the severity of the situation. The government has to be proactive and needs to be more sensitive while addressing farmers’ issues.

More than half (54%) of the farmers who participated in the survey belonged to the 20-35 years of age group and 96% were male. This calls for steps to improve female participation in professional and decision-making spheres. As per the survey, 40% respondents are graduates, 24% are postgraduates, 16% are matriculates, while the rest are barely educated. This indicates that more and more educated manpower is shifting to agriculture. This transformation might become more evident in the post-Covid economy. None of the respondents are professionally trained. This shows that academic literacy has increased, but professional and skill-based education is still lacking in rural Maharashtra. Most of the educated and skilled labourers who shifted back to villages from cities during the lockdown could form the audience for digital literacy programmes and other skill-based activities in villages.

The survey was conducted by Aditi Sawant, head of the department of economics at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and Pravin Jadhav, assistant professor, department of economics, IITRAM, Ahmedabad to understand the issues and concerns of farmers during the lockdown.

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The government reached out to farmers mainly through TV and radio broadcasts which contributes around 52.2%, followed by 19.4% information dissemination through gram-panchayats and 17.4% via mobile messages. This shows low ICT adoption by farmers. The medium of TV or Radio may not be effective due to high entertainment and commercial content compared with agriculture information. In this scenario, the government should develop a mobile app that will connect farmers to a single portal. Too many mobile apps run by KVKs (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) and by private companies add to the prevailing confusion. The government should promote indigenous mobile manufacturers that can provide right-priced smart phones.

Farmers suggest the involvement of temple committees, corporates, social trusts and FPOs could strengthen the link between farmers and consumers. If various ministries and government agencies could purchase the produce from farmers, it will give a fillip to the Narendra Modi government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.

(Aditi Sawant is head of the economics department at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Pravin Jadhav is assistant professor at department of economics, IITRAM, Ahmedabad.)