India’s coronavirus crisis hits country’s farmers and food supplies – Financial Times

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For Jagbir Singh Mann, April is normally a time of hard work and celebration, coinciding with the harvest of the winter wheat crop before the onset of the summer heat.

But Mr Mann, a 59-year-old farmer in the north Indian state of Punjab, did not celebrate this year’s Vaisakhi harvest festival with the usual joyous family feast. Instead, Mr Mann was fretting over how he will process and sell his wheat.

“All my work will come to nothing if I’m not able to sell my wheat at the market because of the labour shortage,” he said anxiously, after a mass exodus of India’s army of migrant workers — including rural labourers — returned to their home villages.

In India, coronavirus cases are still mostly concentrated in big urban centres such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Indore. But the outbreak has triggered a collapse in demand for agricultural products and their farmgate prices, raising concerns about food availability and the economy.

Although agriculture itself accounts for just 15 per cent of India’s gross domestic product, it employs nearly half the workforce.

Farmers’ incomes had already been under pressure in recent years, due to low global commodity prices. Farmers seemed set for a pick-up this year, as bountiful rains had brought a bumper crop and global commodity prices were rising. But then India was put under a national lockdown last month in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The closure of all restaurants, roadside food stalls, sweet shops, and office and school canteens has seen demand for milk, sugar, pulses and vegetables evaporate. Working class families have reduced their own consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well as animal proteins such as milk, chicken and eggs, as their incomes have collapsed.

“There is no demand in urban areas for farmers’ produce,” said Ajay Vir Jakhar, head of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, or Indian Farmers’ Forum. “Really poor people do not have money to buy. Those who have money to buy are very constrained in their consumption. They will buy the bare minimum because they are uncertain about the times to come.”

Some farmers have opted to stop harvesting and transporting crops to market, leaving crops such as oranges to rot on the trees even as hunger stalks India’s poorest.

“Sometimes the cost of harvesting the produce is more than the wholesale selling price,” Mr Jakhar said. “It makes no sense for the farmer to harvest the crop. Such instances are being reported across the country.”

Kedar Sirohi, a farmer in Madhya Pradesh, said the closure of the farmers’ markets had also given traders the upper hand over farmers, pushing wholesale prices down to a fraction of their proper levels — or their urban selling prices.

Vegetable prices are already rising in cities, due to the sharp drop in arrivals of produce.

“Farmers are facing lots of problems here on the ground level,” Mr Sirohi said.

Harish Damodaran, agriculture editor of the Indian Express newspaper, said farmers’ woes would weigh on the wider economy, even though the government was easing restrictions on agricultural activities.

Availability of farm labour — especially for sowing the upcoming rice crop — is still a major constraint, given strict restrictions on movement between states.

“India has had a bumper crop and this season could have restored farmers’ whole balance sheet,” Mr Damodaran said. “It’s a real tragedy. Lockdown has basically finished all demand.”

For now, Indian authorities are focused on how to safely manage north India’s wheat harvest. Authorities normally procure 50m tons of the crop to pump into the country’s huge subsidised food grain distribution system.

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But this year, officials are trying to extend the procurement season into June so farmers do not need to rush to market with their crops in a few short weeks, which would lead to huge crowds at grain markets. They are also trying to establish strict controls over access to the markets.

Rajbir Singh Hundel, a wheat farmer in Punjab, said most farmers would be anxious to unload their harvest as soon as possible, given their lack of safe storage and the need to pay off creditors.

“Just a few rich farmers may be able to keep their produce and wait,” said Mr Hundel. “But 95 per cent of small farmers will dash to the market like locusts.”

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