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Coping with Covid-19? Options before small, marginal farmers of rainfed regions

By Biswanath Sinha, Kuntal Mukherjee*
The global crisis due to Covid-19 has hit after reaching in western Europe. India’s response to curtail the spread of the disease was quite decisive. It announced a Janata curfew on the March 22, followed by a complete national lockdown from the midnight of March 24.
This however exposed the fault line in our system: thousands of migrant workers got stuck in various places, especially in metro cities as they could not get enough time to plan to return. Providing them basic support like ration and shelter then became a herculean task for the establishment.
The workers are expressing their desire to return to their native places, highlighted by various instances of large number of migrant workers conversing in different locations in Delhi, Mumbai, Surat and other cities in the recent past. Along with the disease itself, the migrant workers’ plight remains a national concern.
A recent submission made by the Union government to the Supreme Court of India reveals that there are about 41.40 million migrant workers in the country during the lockdown and more than 2.5 million are living in relief camps and shelters. In terms sheer number, the size of the migrant workers is equivalent to the population of Spain, one of the worst affected countries under Covid-19.
A close look at the source of these migrant workers suggests that majority of them go in search of jobs from regions where agriculture is mainly practiced under rainfed condition (a district having less than 40 percent of its total cropped area under irrigation is defined as rainfed district).
These pockets, incidentally are also the poverty zones of India inhabited by huge number of farming communities who own very small landholding, generally scattered in different patches. We try to analyse what options the small and marginal farmers and policy makers hold in the immediate and short term future. 
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Rainfed, small holding, migration nexus

About 56 percent of India’s workforce works in agriculture and allied activities even though its contribution to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is only about 13 percent. Further, in rural India 70 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture and allied activities as main source of income.
Analysis of the farmer’s landholding patterns suggest that small and marginal farmers constitute 85 percent of farming community (owning less than 2 hectares of land) but own only 44.58 percent of the farm operated area.
The rained region of India typically faces the challenges of imperfect markets for inputs which results in product leading to smaller value on return to farming; absence of easy access to credit leading to suboptimal investment decisions and input applications; poor human resource base; limited access to suitable extension services restricting suitable technological know-how; poor access to ‘public goods’ such as public irrigation, command area development, electricity grids; etc. All these factors contribute towards large number of people from the region migrating to cities for alternative income.

More person power available but more people to feed

Assuming that about 75 percent of the 41 million migrant workers stuck in different places will return to about 300 rainfed districts, in an average each district will witness approximately 100,000 people returning before the kharif season. This will mean the households will have more helping hands in agricultural fields (not necessarily skilled one) but more people to feed.

Back to the basic: Ensure household level food and nutritional security first

With some sort local level lockdown continuing and many people not ready to move out yet for job outside again, an average farming family needs to revise its strategy around food security. With local markets and nearby agriculture produce market (APM) still unsettled, it will be advisable that the small and marginal farmers opt for crops which will ensure food and nutrition security during this kharif. A possible package of practice could be: 
Seeds and manures can be given to all small and marginal framers as one-time grant or seed capital, especially for food crops and directly consumable cash crops.

Diversify the livelihoods basket

Typically, a farming household’s livelihoods depend on agriculture and allied activities, supplemented by some non-farm interventions. The farmers should try to diversify the livelihoods basket by engaging in income generating activities around non timber forest produce (NTFP), especially in tribal areas. Some state governments like Maharashtra have already brought NTFPs under essential commodity list.
The local self-help groups (SHGs) may collect NTFPs like mahua and tendu leaves and these can be connected with Central Government’s Van Dhan Scheme for forward market linkages. The people who return with some cash but lack in farming skill can go for rearing livestock and fisheries.

Big push for MGNREGS

Many migrant workers will return to villages and may not have skills in farming. They need to be engaged meaningfully to create local level assets around natural resources. To mitigate the lack of cash for existing farmers as well as the returnees, a bigger push to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) will be very helpful.
The Central Government has increased the wage rate recently under MGNREGA, but more number of people needs to be brought under this. It’s high time to increase the man days from 100 to ensure sustained income in the rural areas.

Working Capital/Vulnerability Reduction Fund/ Community Investment Support Fund (CIF)

It is imperative that during this kharif season the farmers will need working capital. For this, credit has to be arranged in manner wherein the farmers will have confidence for going for crop planning. Currently there is provision of parking funds at the community institution level under National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). This provision can further be enhanced and expanded to all the villages through appropriate local mechanism so that the community collectively can cope with any emergent situation.

Skills enhancement

This pandemic has undoubtedly demonstrated the value of technology in an unprecedented manner. This happened in villagers getting messages on Covid-19 from various agencies and other measures. In a few rare cases the migrant workers even tagged their local political representatives about their plights and locations.
It’s important that farmers now master the digital world for good and soon. It will do a world of good if the farmers and potential migrants learn how to access services and information; how to use internet banking etc. through digital technology along with enhancing professional knowhow on their skill verticals like plumbing, construction, carpentry, etc.

Local institutions coming together

In rural areas the farming community is intertwined with various institutions. There are Gram Panchayat (equivalent body in scheduled areas), primary agricultural credit society (PACS), self-help groups (SHGs), SHG federations, farmers’ producer company (FPO), farmers’ club, and the district administration. This crisis gives ample opportunity for all these institutions coming together and formulating a revival plan for each district starting from village level.

Conclusion

During the last decade there have been ambitious policy declarations in regards to Indian agriculture, especially aiming towards rainfed regions. Two such big ticket ideas are Bringing Second Green Revolution in the largely unrealized rainfed region and the other is Doubling Farmers’ Income. With basic institutional structure (market, credit, insurance, research, extension service, etc.) not in place, all these announcements unfortunately remain unrealized, nicely placed only as policy document.
When all over the globe we are now talking about restarting life in view of Covid-19 pandemic, it’s high time we pause and rethink realistically about how to revitalize agriculture sustainably in this hinterland of India. Because it’s most apt now to say "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture".
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*Biswanath Sinha is with Tata Trusts, Mumbai. Kuntal Mukherjee is with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), Raipur. Views expressed here are personal

Comments

Prabhat said…
The concerns raised for the so called migrant labour in my view are both seasonal and some are beyond to seasonality.The migrant labour had been a issue since long with district administration mostly from rainfed or typically tribal dominated districts but in the present context the reversal to native villages will change completely the socio-economic dynamics and even beyond.The pressure on land will increase both on ownership and right to cultivation.Rightly said the cropping intensity may so a drastic jump if the policy documents will be implemented properly.The fragmentedp landholdings may hardly will satisfy the subsistence part.The creation of alternate livelihoods and strengthen supply chain must be on top so that liquidity flow is not constrained.In my view the resources available (may be skilled or unskilled ) should be utilised to the full extent to create a vibrant rural economy as this Kharif season Indian villages will witness the sudden surge in labour availability. Undoubtedly the cropping intensity will increase as more labourers will take fallow land on lease to sustain their livelihoods
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