The govt has allowed mandis, procurement agencies, farm operations, agri-machinery hiring centres, and intra and inter-state movement of farm implements to operate
The govt has also exempted farm workers as well as manufacturing and packaging units of fertilisers, pesticides and seeds from the lockdown order
Harvester machines lumbered up the northern highways of Punjab and Haryana on Monday to a hesitant welcome by farmers. It’s day one of the easing of lockdown restrictions and this should have been good news for India’s agrarian economy in the harvest season for the rabi crop. Except that after nearly four weeks of the ongoing lockdown, rural India is staring at an uncertain future marked by a lack of farm hands, a delayed harvest and an absence of clarity on social distancing norms that are hard to enforce on farms.
Wheat procurement in states like Haryana and Punjab usually begins on 1 April but it was delayed this year due to the covid-19 restrictions. Unseasonal rain last week have added to the delay.
On Monday, Dharambir Saini in Dhar village in Panipat district of Haryana managed to hire a harvester to cut the wheat crop in his five-acre land. The crop has been sitting ready for weeks but the restrictions meant nothing could move. Harvesting of rabi (winter) crops such as wheat, mustard, corn and pulses usually begins in March.
"We somehow arranged a harvester for our fields. There is a huge shortage of farm labour in the area. People who used to work in factories, which are no longer functioning, are now coming to the fields to help out. During the lockdown, we weren’t getting fertilizers and seeds as those shops were all shut. Even if there was a minor repair needed in a tractor, it could not be done," Saini said.
Panipat, an industrial town in Haryana has a large number of handloom factories, which employ many migrant workers. With the factories shut, migrant workers who stayed back have headed to the farms in search of jobs.
The state government has increased the number of procurement centres and is working out a strategy to ensure that farmers do not need to make multiple visits to the mandi to sell their produce. However, farmers like Saini are still unsure of what if any special arrangements have been made.
“We wear masks and step out. To sell our goods we will have to go to the mandi. How can we observe distance there? We worry about our health as well, but this is our year’s earning," he added.
Even as farmers were allowed to continue to work in the first three weeks of the initial lockdown, the procurement of fertilizers and seeds was proving to be a challenge, as was the lack of labour and farm machines.
Ramphal Pandit, a farmer in Mehrana village in Panipat, was left with little option but to harvest half the wheat crop in his field—by hand.
“I would usually have hired a harvester machine but with no clarity, I and my family worked on the field ourselves. This is our main source of income and we could not delay that. The lockdown has been tough on us. We don’t know what we will do with the produce, or if we will get a proper price," Pandit said.
Chief minister Manohal Lal Khattar has said his government will procure every single grain produced in Haryana, and urged commission agents to help out farmers in this time of crisis. Mustard and wheat procurement, respectively commenced from 15 and 20 April.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said last week that although the lockdown will continue till 3 May, there will be fewer restrictions for districts which are not coronavirus hotspots from 20 April.
The central home ministry notified that the government has allowed mandis, procurement agencies, farm operations, agri-machinery hiring centres, intra- and inter-state movement of farm implements to operate once the lockdown restrictions are eased.
Whether all of this brings any measure of certainty to the farms of Panipat remains to be seen.