Bitter Harvest

Farmers suffer under the coronavirus lockdown

A man uses a hand plough to dry wheat on day fifteen of coronavirus lockdown to in Patiala. Bharat Bhushan / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
17 April, 2020

At the beginning of this year, things looked good for Indian farmers. As per advance estimates of the agriculture ministry, the country was expected to produce a record 106.21 million tonnes of wheat in 2019–20, 2.61 million tonnes more than what was produced the previous year. This increase was mainly attributed to increased acreage under wheat production and optimum soil moisture on account of a good monsoon between June and September 2019. 

The first blow to farmers was unseasonal rains and hail storms in mid March. Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh saw severe damage to their crops. Around seven hundred thousand acres of land under wheat cultivation was affected in Punjab alone. Even as farmers were in the process of claiming insurance and compensation from the state government, it announced a 21-day lockdown from 24 March to 14 April in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, which was later extended until 3 May. The economic impact of the lockdown has been so enormous that the losses caused by unseasonal rains pale in comparison. 

While the pandemic entered India in January this year, the government seemed to have realize the magnitude of the threat only in March. Addressing the nation at 8 pm on 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave India less than four hours’ notice, announcing that “there will be a total ban on venturing out of your homes.” He did not explain what this meant for essential services, or what steps the government intended to take to protect people economically in a country where millions lead financially precarious lives. Ever since, the country has been simultaneously dealing with two disasters: the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown itself.

The lockdown seems to have been announced without giving a single thought to what it might mean for farmers. Initial announcements by the government did not bring up agriculture at all, even as the police went about enforcing the lockdown violently, thrashing on sight the poor on the streets. Farmers could not attend to their fields, harvest their crops or bring these crops to mandis—markets for agricultural produce. Even as the government woke up to the calamity it had caused, a shortage of labour has since driven up costs, while a fall in demand had caused market prices to crash. While poultry and dairy farmers have been hit badly, the lockdown has critically endangered the wheat-procurement season, which not only threatens farmers’ livelihoods, but might also create an artificial shortage.