On 1 May, Bipin Rawat, the chief of defence staff, announced that the Indian Air Force would shower petals on hospitals handling the COVID-19 pandemic, among other such activities by the armed forces, “to thank all the corona warriors.” Two days later, as the armed forces’ activities were hailed as morale boosters, one question was missing from the celebratory discourse: How have the floriculture industry, and the farmers and retailers dependent on the sector fared during the lockdown imposed to contain the coronavirus? As Akhilesh Yadav, a farmer who cultivates flowers in Kapashera, in the National Capital Region, told me, “My crops are sown from October and sold from February to June. But today, because of the lockdown, our work is completely finished. And it will not resume anytime soon.”
The nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus, which began on 25 March, is currently in the third phase. The flower-growing season begins as soon as the monsoon gets over and the selling season runs from December to June. During this time, the lack of demand due to a ban on social gatherings of any form, closed markets and complete disruption of supply-chain logistics, has compelled farmers to destroy standing crops. Kamalwanshi, an agricultural economist at the Banaras Hindu University, summed up their problems as, “The farmers put all their savings in the harvest that is now standing in the fields. They will not get anything for this crop and all this capital, which is often the accumulated savings of these farmers, is gone with this harvest. So, neither does he have anything now and nor will he have anything for the future.” He added that “keep in mind, this sector is entirely unorganised. There is no way to quantify the actual damage caused to the people.”
I spoke to several farmers engaged in floriculture in the regions in and around the NCR. There are hundreds of families with farmers in this sector who migrated from their villages across the country to make a living here. Their produce included Dahlia, Statice Flowers, Sweet Belia, Sunflowers, Sapphire, Chrysanthemums and Yellow Daisy, which would be sold in the domestic market and exported. Majority of the farmers I spoke to said that they had hoped that the lockdown would open on 3 May, because they would still have part of the selling season to make up some of the losses. But with the second extension, announced on 1 May, those hopes were dashed. As the farmers destroy their crops, the community is now staring at a livelihood crisis. Most of them said that they have lost all their savings and capital, and will have to return to their native villages just to survive. They did not own the land they cultivated and would be out of the purview of government aid. The condition of flower sellers and retailers, majority of who fall under the unorganised sector, is as destitute.
Rajesh Kumar Maurya is from Mohenganj, a village in the Amethi district of Uttar Pradesh. He lives in Gurgaon, which is a part of Haryana and falls under the NCR. “I have three acres of farmland which I rented. I pay Rs 1,15,000 as rent per year. I had ordered flower saplings worth Rs 80,000 from Kolkata,” Maurya said. “It takes lakhs of rupees to get the land ready—labour, electricity, water, pesticides, weeding. We have lost it all in this lockdown. I have harrowed part of my field, the rest I have left fallow. We thought that if the lockdown opens on 3 May then we might have some hope. Now that hope, too, is gone. We have been completely destroyed.” Maurya said he did not know how he would feed his family because he would “not get anything even from the government since I do not own the land. Whatever comes will go to the landowner. I was the owner of the crop but no one is talking about that.”
Yadav is originally a resident of Gonda district in Uttar Pradesh and the land he cultivates in Kapashera is rented. Yadav told me that he came to Delhi in 1998. “A lot of people from the villages surrounding mine also came here. But we have never faced such a loss before.” He said that the ban on all parties, marriages, weddings and big events meant that there was no hope of any earnings in the coming months, too. He told me, “I destroyed produce worth lakhs from my entire two acres. We did not know what else do to. I think I will have to return home, back where I came from in 1998.” He, too, said that they had received no help, or even assurances, from the government.