Coronavirus Puts India On Highway To Hunger: Despite Bumper Harvest Why Food Riots Lurk
Photo by Prabhjot Gill
It’s a mess of epic proportions and complex nature—a maze of contradictions. The COVID-19 lockdown—national, and even global in its sheer sweep—has brought a screaming shortage of essentials across the country. At the same time, paradoxically, India has more than enough food to feed her citizens. In the darkest of ironies, the buffer stock of food grain—i.e. the stock in storage—is three times the mandatory requirement. On top of that, there are indications of a bumper crop this season. So the food is there. But herein comes the real knot in the puzzle. How does one get the tiger, the goat and the bundle of grass across the river? It’s a logistical dead-end that governments, both at the Centre and the states, are staring at. They seem simply unable to move the food to where it is required—everyone’s plates.
It’s like blood circulation stopping suddenly in an already suffering body. Truckers are unable to operate freely. They cannot find workers to offload food items, nor do they have the goods to carry for the return journey. Not to speak of being harassed at inter- and intra-state checkposts. The upshot: farmers are unable to sell their produce. And central warehouses have become islands of isolation. Only one in seven major mandis, or wholesale markets, is open across India—so retail supplies in towns, cities, even villages, stand drastically disrupted. It’s not a production calamity, but a distribution nightmare on a national scale.
The signs of an ominous food crisis in rural areas are already there. Most rural households—barring the land-owning ones— across six or seven Indian states that Outlook spoke to fear that they may run out of food in a few days, given the number of family members returning home from cities. Retail outlets are unable to refurbish their dwindling inventories. Given the creeping onset of what could be a dispersed famine, experts fear that India may soon find itself in the midst of food riots and civil crisis if circulation is not eased. Economist Jean Dreze, who has worked extensively on starvation, fears rural India will be in a lot of pain with the reverse flow of migrants unless emergency measures are taken (see interview, “Bihar will take the worst hit”). The Centre and state governments are confident as of now, and say they will manage and resolve the distribution bottlenecks in a few days. A lot of Indians will be hoping that the proof of the pudding will come—in the eating.
Only one in seven major mandis is open in India.
The real extent of the emergency, even if of a disaggregated nature, will be known soon. There will also be economic consequences to contend with. In rural areas, the good news is that the croppers, or those whose produce is ready, are unlikely to go hungry. But the full force of the downstream repercussions will be on them—for the next 2-3 years, or more. Since they will be unable to sell their crops, or even opt for distress selling, their incomes will dwindle this season. That means they will be unable to repay their current debts, and will need to borrow even more for the next season.
In effect, farmers will get even more entangled in a debt whirlpool. Result? Suicides, extreme poverty and subsistence living—or, if they are fortunate, loan waivers at least for those within the formal system. There are many marginal farmers outside that. Also, armies of migrant workers—those who return home to earn money during the cutting season, who find themselves high and dry. They will depend heavily on welfare schemes, like MNREGA, which need to be escalated immediately. Else, we may be staring at extreme rural distress.
Urban areas have another phalanx of ghosts haunting them. Already strained by bankruptcies and more possible failures in the organised sector, they may soon see companies slashing costs (read: layoffs). Salaries may be cut too. Middle-class consumption will consequently come down drastically. As for the unorganised sector, the spectre of an uncertain future looms even sharper—and longer. One variable here: will migrant labourers even come back from the villages? Or will uncertainty keep them back? It will be bleak at home, and back in the city too.
Already, in January 2020, the World Bank lowered India’s growth rate to 5 per cent. This could slip further by another 1-2 per cent due to the current crisis, or perhaps more if it explodes in our faces over the next couple of weeks. Sectors like tourism, aviation, hospitality, agriculture and huge swathes of manufacturing will be paralysed, or just limp along. Also, one needs to factor in the web of global factors. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs recently projected up to 1 per cent shrinkage in the global economy this year because of the pandemic—and even worse if economic activities continue to be restricted for an extended period without sufficient fiscal responses. If the US drifts into a recession, as is expected, countries like India and China, an integral part of global supply chains, can’t escape being impacted.
Prices of farm produce have gone up by 15% since the lockdown.
Things, as they say, are likely to get even worse before they show any signs of improvement. Indians will need to tighten their belts in several ways—socially, emotionally, economically. This is an unprecedented crisis. No generation, except for sections in some states during Partition, have seen anything like this before—not during the Emergency, not during the wars, not during past civil crises. This nation has never been locked down. It’s time not only for a pitched battle against COVID-19, but for the larger war that will stretch ahead of it. And all of us need to join it.
On March 10, the start of the rabi harvest season, India was sitting on huge food grain stocks—estimated at 77.72 million tonnes, over three times the statutory norms. So the country should not rightfully witness any food riots…unless the authorities mess up the distribution and supplies. Ground reports from several states indicate that, despite government measures to ensure a smooth harvest and sale by farmers, persistent police high-handedness during efforts to enforce the COVID-19 lockdown is causing disruptions.
The ongoing harvest of wheat, paddy, pulses, oil seeds and maize, besides fruits and vegetables, all hold the promise of a bumper crop—barring in some areas where untimely rains, fungal infestation affecting vegetables and lack of transportation has wrought some damage, impacting the income of scores of farmers and supplies to the market. Agro-economist Prof Abhijit Sen is optimistic because of the sheer abundance and dismisses fears of any food crisis. “Given that the harvest is just coming in and the produce will be stored somewhere, there is time enough to actually sort out things. There is, of course, a lot of unthinking stuff going on, but finally some order should prevail,” he says, while acknowledging the specific challenges of the present.
India’s total food grain production, as per the Second Advance Estimates for 2019-20, is pegged at a record 291.95 million tonnes, which is 6.74 million tonnes more than the previous crop year. Wheat production during 2019-20 is estimated to be a record 106.21 million tonnes, around 2.61 million tonnes more than in 2018-19. That’s why the Food Corporation of India is hopeful of procuring 35 million tonnes of grains this year, against 34.13 million tonnes last year. But the situation, admits Sen, “is more complicated than post-demonetisation. Then the real economy was tanking because of a liquidity problem. Here the real economy is tanking because people can’t go out. That’s impacting all the input-output relationships.”
Hurdles in the supply chain, meanwhile, could aggravate the food situation in some parts of the country pretty soon. Rural farm households across most states generally keep food for themselves before going out and selling it—or grow separately for their consumption. So they will be spared hunger. But some states like Kerala, Goa and those in the Northeast are already witnessing shortages of essential commodities. Being a consumer state with 80 per cent of its food requirement coming from outside, Kerala finance minister T.M. Thomas Isaac is justifiably tense. “We have provided everybody 10 kg of rice through ration shops, and started community kitchens. But this is a new situation: we feel an absolute shortage may emerge,” he says. Kerala’s welfarism—including the packets of dal and chapati it has started providing to migrant industrial workers—depends on supplies.
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Many states have enhanced PDS limits, with some also including pulses to meet the population’s protein needs. Sen is, however, not sure whether the promised ration is reaching the poor. “PDS operations vary from state to state, as always. It is also too early to say whether direct fund transfers have helped the beneficiaries.”
Dr Panjab Singh, president, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, is among the optimists. He feels there should be no problem with food availability either in the cities, where supply chains are being activated with the help of online portals and big retail outlets, or in rural areas. What he calls for is a sharp focus on rural areas so as to cater to the large number of migrant labourers who have relocated there due to lack of income sources in locked-down cities. “We need to restock distribution centres for that,” he states. But S.P. Singh of the Indian Foundation of Transport, Research and Training says the logistics is completely crippled (and so is the business it needs to be viable). Truckers who have reached their destinations are unable to find labour to offload their consignments. And those who have managed that don’t have cargo to take back.
Sudhir Panwar, former member of the Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission, also points out multiple problems farmers are facing, mostly due to harassment at police checkposts. “Police are persisting in not allowing movement of vegetables despite central and state government orders. They are either demanding money or harassing out of fear,” he says. The multiplicity of orders is creating confusion, he adds. Agriculture being a state subject, many states have issued different orders: that has led to police emerging as the executing authority. Results: logjams in the flow of labour and agriculture produce. Otherwise, he points out, it’s not unusual to see migrants returning home to help with farm work during the harvest and sowing of “Jaid crops” from March 20-April 20. “This is known as the ‘rewarding season’ where instead of cash, workers are paid in wheat, which helps them stock up for the family needs,” he adds. A depletion there means hunger for the landless.
A senior food ministry official says on condition of anonymity, “Even though truck movement is happening and improving, difficulties are being faced at state borders. These are among concerns that were recently flagged at the meeting with food and civil supplies secretaries.” Many state governments have asked the Centre to intervene and are themselves approaching neighbouring states to bail them out. Border points are the bottleneck.
Other gremlins too attack a vulnerable system, and need to be tackled. “We have a special 24x7 helpline for complaints regarding black marketing, distribution and wholesaler problems,” Bihar chief secretary Deepak Kumar tells Outlook. “After the first two days of huge complaints, now the helplines are not buzzing that much.” He makes light of the fear of food riots, stating that special arrangements have been made for rural areas. Panchayats are undertaking food delivery at homes, and mukhias and sarpanches are ensuring these supplies, he says. But judge that against Dreze’s grim cautionary note, that some of Bihar’s communities lead a “hand-to-mouth existence even at the best of times”.
Many farmer producer organisations (FPOs) are also striving to find solutions with the help of local authorities and the horticulture board by getting passes issued for supply of vegetables and fruits to nearby villages and towns. In Haryana, out of 400 FPOs, about half have been roped in to ensure supplies—and 118 of them are providing retail services within the state. Unlike profiteers, FPOs help protect farmers’ interests, while also reaching out to consumers. So damage to the present vegetable crop is being reduced considerably.
Deepak Khatkar, an FPO representative in Haryana, is confident that registered FPOs could soon help smoothen the supply chain across India. Some, like Ravi Sajjanar in Bagalkot district in Karnataka, are using direct links with consumers and wholesalers to ensure smooth supplies in cities like Bangalore. All this while addressing the COVID-19 concerns: Sajjanar says they are providing protective gear to their workers. Panwar, however, says replicating that is not possible on a large scale given the scarcity of gloves, masks and sanitisers.
The fear factor is such that, despite government orders, most mandis had not started operations until early this week, leaving farmers in a fix. The clotted arteries mean that, inevitably, prices have witnessed a 10-15 per cent rise for many farm products, including vegetables, says Sudarshan Suryawanshi, CEO of Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals. But he’s happy that most state governments are now taking proactive measures to restore the supply chain.
But right now, it’s still like a cardiac arrest. M.J. Khan, chairman of Indian Chamber of Food and Agriculture, says only 1,000 out of India’s 7,000 mandis were operational till March 30. And village haats, which provide a ready source of income for farmers, have been non-functional since the lockdown. That has led to many small farmers dumping their first vegetable harvest.
Kedar Sirohi, a farm leader in Madhya Pradesh, fears that with harvest gathering pace, farmers in need of money may make a beeline for the mandis to offload their produce, despite the health advisory against gathering of too many people. It is not uncommon during peak harvest, stretching over 10 days from April first week, to find 5,000 to 8,000 farmers flocking to mandis at any time to sell their produce. “Will that not defeat the purpose of the lockdown?” asks Sirohi, urging the government to improve the e-payment system and provide incentives to farmers willing to hold on to their produce for a few more days and not crowd the mandis. The government procurement window could be widened to facilitate this, he adds.
And the present paralysis will also have an ongoing effect at another level. Sowing is expected to begin soon, and farm experts warn that production hurdles could hit supplies of seeds and fertilisers, and raise farmers’ input costs. So, in the absence of timely action, we will be reaping a grim harvest in the next season also as summer, and that other annual spectre, the much-awaited monsoon, stalk our countryside. Hunting in pairs with a virus.