Coronavirus impact: Food security at risk as crisis engulfs farmers

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A bumper yield of paddy, wheat, jowar, cotton, vegetables, maize and millets in Hanumanahalli of Dharwad district is at the mercy of COVID-19 lockdown. Over 30% of the crop lie unharvested, due to the acute shortage of labour and lack of access to the fields. The harvested crops remain stacked in the fields and houses of farmers, as they cannot transport the grains without logistics support. 

Anxiety prevails over the village at the sudden turn of their fortune. The possibility of rain has only compounded their problem. Immediate sale of the produce is crucial to them for two reasons: to subsist and to grow the next crop.

Yallappa Ramji, a village elder, states succinctly, “If we starve today, consumers will suffer tomorrow.”

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Around 100 km away, in Ranebennur taluk of Haveri district, over 3,000 agricultural labourers are pleading with the district administration to give them work under the MGNREGA scheme as promised by the Union government. With no income, they are barely meeting their food needs as they can’t afford to buy the essentials (other than rice and wheat which these jowar-consuming people get from PDS) from the market, which costs around Rs 500 per week for a family of three. “These daily wage workers earn their livelihood while preparing the land for the next cropping season,” said social worker S D Baligar.

Growers of summer fruits and vegetables—from melons and grapes to pineapple, papaya, cabbage and tomatoes—across Karnataka are witnessing months of hard work and investment falling apart. For floriculturists, all hopes have withered away.

Though there is no official assessment on the loss to farmers, the Horticulture Department estimates that the drop in demand is more than 40% during the lockdown period.

Farmers’ organisations say that around 70% farmers have been hit by the current crisis.

The disruption in the supply chain of agriculture and horticulture produce, uncertainty over the next cultivation season, fall in demand and reduced consumption of food pose a threat to food security and nutrition owing to COVID-19 pandemic. Food and Agricultural Organisation had cautioned about this possibility if the governments did not take care of the food and nutritional needs of the marginalised.

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Farmers acknowledge the governments’ efforts to support them by easing restrictions and taking a slew of measures. Their worry, however, is the limited reach of these programmes.

Over 500 farmers call the two helplines at the state government’s agri war room every day. A majority of them are desperate to find a market for their produce.

“We would’ve missed at least 10 calls while responding to one situation,” says an officer at the helpline, indicating the magnitude of the crisis. 

Reaching out to the helpline hasn’t helped 37-year-old Siddappa Hulkund in Tukkanatti village of Gokak taluk sell his vegetables (brinjal, tomato, ridge gourd and coriander leaves) worth seven lakh rupees. “I was directed to a district horticulture officer who in turn gave me the number of a middleman. The middleman refused to buy, citing reduced demand for the produce.” 

Over 100 farmers in his village face the same problem. Those who grew cabbage, cauliflower and melons had to till the field with the crop standing, as the price dropped from Rs 10 per kg to Re 1 per kg. They feel the government must start collection centres in every taluk or hobli and save them from losses.

But Karnataka, despite being a top producer state, doesn’t have cold storage and processing infrastructure to match its production. Of the total 136 cold storage facilities in the state, six are owned by Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) and eight by Karnataka State Agricultural Produce Processing and Export Corporation.

“Around 40% of our fruits and vegetables have markets outside the state. For instance, 80% of pineapple goes to northern states. In this time of crisis, all cold storage facilities will be utilised. However, only 25% of the total capacity of 4,40,883 tonnes is available now as the remaining 75% is already in use. We try our best to facilitate whoever approaches us and create market linkages so that farmers can sell their produce directly,” said B Venkatesh, director, Department of Horticulture.

Activist and grape grower Anjaneya Reddy R calls for a proactive response from the government. “In the grape farms of Kolar, Chikkaballapur, Bengaluru Rural and neighbouring areas, farmers are staring at a huge loss as over 3,000 tonnes of grapes, mainly Dilkush variety, is ready for harvest and should be used up in the next 10 days.” 

“The state government should buy our produce and distribute it among the needy. Or it can connect farmers and consumers and notify traders to provide logistics support. Even those who are distributing food packets can include fruits and vegetables in the kit.”

Agricultue policy analysts draw attention to the irony of thousands of people struggling to get two meals a day, while millions of farmers are facing uncertainty despite getting a good crop. “An ideal way would be to collect fruits and vegetables from each village and distribute it among the deprived,” says analyst Suresh Kanjarpane. Though not to that extent, the government has been taking measures to tackle the situation.

However, these steps don’t seem to have reached small and marginal farmers. Agriculture input providers and traders can avail a green pass but wholesale buyers are reluctant to trade due to the lack of staff and the market slowdown. Retail markets and the APMCs have resumed only limited operations. 

Agricultural economist T N Prakash Kammardi says, “Not even one-third of the normal arrivals is reaching the markets in the state despite good yield. For instance, as against 12 lakh tonnes of onion that would have arrived in different markets by this time, hardly 2.3 lakh tonnes have arrived. Similarly, the current transaction for tomato and banana in different regulated markets is 15% and 36% of the normal arrival, as recorded in the previous two years.”

Mrutyunjaya, who assessed the situation of farmers in six villages of Dharwad and Haveri districts, observes that from the lack of information about government measures to lack of access to credit, the lockdown has affected farmers in myriad ways.

“Many farming families rely on members working in cities for monetary support. With them returning home empty-handed, the flow of money has been cut-off,” said G Krishnaprasad, who works with farmers.

As a result, loans and distress will mount. “Considering the enormity of the situation, the government should immediately open procurement centres for crops and announce a minimum support price to all crops before the next cropping season starts. As promised, the Union government should immediately deposit Rs 6000 to farmers’ accounts under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi,” says activist V Gayathri. “The government should also take steps to link the produce to food and nutrition schemes such as PDS,” she adds.

Officials in the agriculture department say if kharif fails this year, food shortages will be imminent next year. “The department has pulled all the strings to ensure the timely flow of inputs like seeds and fertilisers,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Brijesh Kumar Dixit. 

Similarly, there have been efforts to help mango farmers tide over the crisis. The Horticulture Department has approached food processing plants across the country to explore the possibility of pulping and tinning fruits.

The state supply chain management cell set up by the government is utilising the available infrastructure in the state and in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, from tomato ketch-up plants to pickling units. “We are resolving issues to ensure smooth functioning of the supply chain for essential commodities. Even though the interstate movement is happening, constraints still exist and the demand is yet to pick up for certain commodities in view of the closure of consuming units like hotels and restaurants as well as labour movement issues,” said P C Ray, the coordinator of the cell.

The pandemic has brought the crucial role of food to the fore. Agricultural economist Devinder Sharma says that extraordinary crisis requires extraordinary measures. “With a good strategy, the damage to farmers could be minimised,” he says.

As concerns about the adverse impact of a prolonged lockdown on food security loom large, social anthropologist A R Vasavi says that the current crisis highlights the fragile structural positioning of the agricultural and rural sectors and the extreme vulnerability of the landless and small and marginal farmers.

A strong marketing network and more importantly, a decentralised, integrated and community-driven approach in cultivation and consumption seems to be the way forward.

Need to strengthen Hopcoms

Amid the despair, tales of hope have emerged from the current crisis. Individual efforts to sell produce at a remunerative price using social media platforms, techies connecting farmers and consumers through technology and organisations and associations facilitating the sale of perishable goods are some areas that have caught people’s attention.

The highlight, however, is the Hopcoms’ network of outlets and vans that are functioning in Bengaluru and other major cities. The Sujala fruits and vegetables vending vans run by ICAR-IIHR have also been utilised. However, the worry is their reach. Hopcoms’ share in the fruit and vegetable market of Bengaluru, the only city where it is well-organised, is estimated to be less than 10%. 

Agriculture experts believe time has come to strengthen Hopcoms and extend its service to taluk and hobli places helping both farmers and consumers. Horticulture Department concurs.

After all, the success of farming lies in developing decentralised farm ecosystems with a sustainable and community-centered approach.

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