It’s 7 am, my phone is fully charged and I have a long list of telephone numbers in front of me. We are now in middle of June and the men and women I am trying to get in touch with are in a hurried panic. Without wasting their time, I try to talk to them before they set off to their fields, along with the rest of their families, to begin the back breaking task of paddy transplantation.
India, much like rest of the world, went into complete lockdown in March, anticipating a steep rise in the curve indicating the number of new COVID-19 cases recorded each day. More than two months later, today, the country is amidst ‘unlocking’, and is preparing to resume economic activities even as the curve shows no signs of flattening.
The lockdown has been brutally unequal in its consequences. Over the past months, as we recoiled into the comfort of our homes, most of our lives slowed down considerably, giving us a chance to reconnect with ourselves, our hobbies. In sharp contrast, many across the country found themselves to be direct victims of a quickly worsening humanitarian crisis. Many states saw a mass exodus of migrant labourers, who were facing a loss of income and fleeing hunger, often making the tough, long journey back home on foot.
Without a helping hand
For decades, farmers in Haryana have been heavily dependant on non-local, seasonal labourers to assist them in all farm activities – from sowing to harvesting to transporting the produce to the markets. Farmers previously used to hire migrant labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to carry out the time bound, and often entirely manual, process of sowing paddy. Even though in some cases the state departments advanced the sowing dates, labourers have still not returned. Anticipating such a scenario, cash-rich farmers have arranged for special buses to ferry migrants back to the state; an option out of reach for the majority.
In response to labour shortage, farmers are stepping up to sow paddy themselves, with the help of their family members. Umrav Singh, a farmer from Lad village in Dadri, Haryana, tells me there is labour available locally, youth who could lend a helping hand to farmers. However, most of them are enrolled in the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act, where even in the absence of work, they receive an unemployment allowance, leaving little to no motivation to engage in laborious tasks on field.
India is, globally, the second biggest rice producer, exporting over 10 million tons of rice each year. There was a concern that production levels might take a hit in the pandemic and farmers might make a switch to growing cotton or other kharif crops, which are less labour intensive and thus, easier to sow. But there is little indication that farmers traditionally involved in paddy farming are now abandoning the crop. This is yet another testament to the unending resilience of an average Indian farmer.
Cloud of uncertainty
The nationwide lockdown coincided with the wheat harvesting season (April-May) and brought forth numerous challenges to farmers trying to get their produce to the mandis. K.K. Jangada, a farmer from Dhandhoor village in Hisar, Haryana, told me how his harvested wheat crop was lying idle in his fields as he waited for his turn to sell at the mandi to arrive under the newly introduced e-token system. The process has been slower due to the social distancing norms. Problems intensified for small and marginal farmers who could not access storage facilities and they had to watch early rains destroy their perfect harvest, waiting to be sold.
Things were worse for vegetable growers who, without assured procurement from the government, had to bear the brunt of dramatically lower demand and market price. Batra ji, a cucumber farmer from Karnal, who sold almost 300 quintals of produce last season, was able to sell less than 50 quintals under lockdown, for prices as low as Rs 4 per kg. On most days, travel-related restrictions prevented him from visiting nearby towns and cities to make the sale. On the days he did manage to arrange transport, he had to pay double the usual cost, adding up to more than the value of his sales.
Similarly, Ankur Thakral, from Kurukshetra, who cultivates bell peppers and other exotic vegetables for restaurant owners, was forced to sell his produce in the open market for Rs 2-3 per kg. Frustrated, he destroyed the broccoli he had grown over three acres of leased land.
There are many more like Ankur and Batraji, who are unsure if it makes sense for them to grow vegetables again as monsoon sets in. But their options are limited; they did not earn enough from their previous harvest to purchase inputs for any other crop. As is, the investment is higher this time around, with a rise in price of everything from labor to diesel to machine rental.
Travel-related restrictions did more than cut off market access.
Prem Singh, a farmer from Sonipat, Haryana, was on his way to the bank to submit his documents to receive a subsidy on fertilisers. He was stopped by the police for violating lockdown rules and had to pay a fine. When he went back to the bank after travel restrictions were lifted, he was told that he had missed the last date and cannot be enrolled as a beneficiary. Premji recounted many other humiliating interactions he has had with bank officials in the past, who continue to look at farmers with a hint of distrust in their intentions as well as capacity to return the money they borrow.
Even though farmers across the country often don’t find institutional support, they’ve got each other’s backs. I expected landless cultivators, and small and marginal farmers to be experiencing some level of food insecurity. However, almost all have had received help from bigger and richer farmers in their villages, who shared their ration and the milk from their livestock. It was heart-warming to get an insight into how strong their community ties are, a concept rather alien to the urban life we lead.
While they earnestly tell me about their struggles, in the same note, they never fail to mention how necessary the lockdown was for public health and safety, an acknowledgement often missing from city dwellers rushing back to shopping malls and restaurants. They also recognise how it has benefitted the environment around them.
Their despair is accompanied by acceptance, gratitude and hope for things to get better as the ‘new normal’ settles in. At the end of each day, when my phone battery completely drains out, my conversations have given me more than data and research points – very many invaluable life lessons.
Diksha Pandey is a public policy professional working at the intersection of research and evaluation. She tweets @Diksha_xD
Featured image credit: Reuters