Agriculture

Food and agriculture during a pandemic: Managing the consequences

  • Blog Post Date 27 March, 2020
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Sudha Narayanan

Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research

sudha@igidr.ac.in

A critical fallout of the lockdown following the novel coronavirus pandemic has been a combination of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety for farmers and consumers alike as to what lies in store in the coming weeks. In this post, Sudha Narayanan provides a sense of current bottlenecks in the supply chains of food and agricultural produce, and makes recommendations for government action to get these back on track quickly. 

 

A critical fallout of the lockdown following the novel coronavirus pandemic has been a combination of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety for farmers and consumers alike as to what lies in store in the coming weeks. 

There are reports from several states of closure of APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis, leaving farmers stuck with their harvests.Reports of police extortion of traders transporting produce have surfaced in a few states; in others, truckers have been fined upto Rs.12,000 for plying supposedly in violation of the lockdown.At least one Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) in Karnataka has been pushed to suspend its activities. States such as Gujarat have gone further and announced suspension of government procurement operations altogether. Coming at the peak of rabi (winter) harvest,these collectively spell doom not just for the farmers but also informal workers involved in the supply chain of these commodities. 

At the distribution end, in big cities, a number of private e-commerce and micro delivery firms have faced disruptions.These range from shipments being stopped at state and city limits to their delivery agents being harassed and roughed up, sometimes by cops, when they attempt deliveries. A few have suspended operations altogether. Such disruptions, perversely,prompt customers to flock brick-and-mortar stores, the very thing the lockdown seeks to prevent.Street vendors too have been forced indoors.Many direct farmer-to-consumer arrangements in urban centres are dysfunctional because of concerns and fears over transportation. There are reports too of consumers being harassed while venturing out to shop for groceries. 

By most accounts, it is apparent that the lockdown has taken a wrong turn, notwithstanding the government guidelines that allow for food transport and retailing.  In material terms, impediments in the free movement of goods can create uncertainty around food availability, resulting in volatile prices for consumers and farmers, not just in the cities but countrywide.Some farmers are seeing a sharp decline in prices, halved in some cases, because logistical risks deter traders from procuring. Within a couple of days, some farmers found that they had no buyers at all; there are already reports that farmers are delaying harvests. If things get worse, they might leave the standing crop on the fields. In contrast, for consumers in cities, many perishables have seen a surge in prices.Supply chain bottlenecks could result in substantial loss of produce, especially of perishables. 

The ramifications of current bottlenecks, many expect, will be apparent only in two or three weeks; if left unaddressed, in the worst-case scenario it might well coincide with when the pandemic is far more widespread than it is currently. Time is therefore of the essence here. 

What is the way forward?

Currently, on-farm operations such as harvesting appear unaffected, even in places that rely on migrant labour. The immediate and urgent focus of the government should therefore be on post-harvest activities, wholesale and retail marketing, storage and transport. 

The Centre along with the states should agree to allow all mandis and all forms of agricultural markets, regulated and unregulated,public or private, where relevant,to function as usual. States such as Maharashtra, after shutting of APMC mandis have already announced that they will be reopened with  trading on specific days of the week, allowing for days off to sanitize the mandi. This is a step in the right direction. 

All farmers’ markets, direct farmer-to-consumer arrangements such as Community Supported Agriculture and other FPOand cooperative marketing activities should be allowed unhindered. The Rythu Bazaars in Telangana, for example, have often come under siege from panicking consumers, first during the onion price crisis and more hazardously, in the past few days. All food retailers should be permitted to operate round the clock if they desire, to help reduce potential congestion. 

Currently, there is little clarity on the policy for movement of commodities. This might in part stem from the guidelines that talk about commodities as essential or not, which is confusing to say the least.1 2 However, it is also crucial that even non-food crops be permitted free movement and sale to protect the interests of farmers. Tamil Nadu’s guidelines, for example, explicitly allows for all goods carriers to operate(dated 23 March G.O.(Ms).No.152). With laudable foresight, Telangana has gone a step further to ensure, via a separate order, that seed production, testing, storage, and transport remain unhindered, in preparation for the kharif season (Memo No.49 on 23 March 2020), when planting materials will be in demand. This constraint to movement is systemic and widespread and cannot be solved by issuing passes to select operators, for example, e-commerce players. The Centre and states should instead agree to allow free movement of all agricultural commodities (food, non-food crops, and inputs) both within and across states.

Many of the logistical disruptions have come from an “overzealous bureaucracy”and police overreach in enforcing the lockdown. Some traders complain that consequently even finding workers has gotten harder.Clear advisories need to go out urgently to the police that they are tasked with facilitating, rather than preventing the movement of agricultural commodities.

At a time like this, government procurement under price support operations is crucial. Telangana, for example, has explicitly issued guidelines for decentralised procurement of paddy with staggered times for different farmers to reduce crowds in village procurement centres (GO Ms No.42, 22 March 2020). Many states, such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, already have the capacity to decentralise procurement at the village level. States can do this via Self-Help Groups, Primary Agricultural Credit Cooperative Societies, and even via functioning FPOs. The government could explore leasing in unutilised capacity in warehouses and cold storages to extend support to farmers/FPOs who want to hold produce, linking them to warehouse receipts or pledge loans where there is demand. In some ways, such interventions go beyond cash transfers, by ensuring that harvested produce is not wasted while stabilising supplies and prices. Indeed, given that many state governments have already announced distribution of meals, procurement can also serve to support these efforts. 

Naturally, some protocols need to be issued for sanitising storage, procurement, and marketing spaces, including social distancing strategies and protective measures for those who work in these spaces. At this time, those associated with supply chains need to feel secure that they are protected –from the epidemic itself but also from the lockdown. It is not difficult for the government to get food and agricultural supply chains back on track.The costs of not doing so could well be alarming. 

Note from author: Many instances cited here are based on personal communication with those on the ground, including farmers, promoters of FPOs, and logistics operators. They remain anonymous for ethical reasons.

Notes:

  1. The use of the word “essential” comes from the Essential Commodities Act, which notifies some commodities as essential. There is no good reason to expect people (including) the police to know what these are.
  2. Most states have used Section 2 the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 (Central Act No.3 of 1897), often enabled by the National Disaster Management Act (2005) to declare lockdowns; the actual notifications differ significantly across states.
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