Covid-19 lockdown chokes farm-to-fork supply, could hit India hard
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, countrywide restrictions were announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24.
A lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic has upended agriculture, the lifeblood of India’s rural economy, breaking down the farm-to-fork supply chain by cutting off farmers from buyers of their produce.
A longer-than-usual supply chain could stoke distress. Thousands of trucks carrying essential commodities are stranded on national highways even though they are officially allowed to ply. Despite the omnibus federal orders that permit them, many transporters haven’t received last-mile permits from local authorities, truckers say.
The Union government on March 28 said it would spare agriculture and all activities linked to it from the lockdown. “The exemption was needed much earlier,” Kavitha Kuruganti, a Bangalore-based farm activist, said.
Lockdowns have hampered harvesting of crops such as potato. Farmers in states such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the largest producers of the big winter staple, wheat, wonder how they will reap their ripening fields.
The countrywide restrictions were announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24. Essential supplies have been spared, but these have still been impacted because multiple intermediaries, including manual and semi-skilled workers need to be working to keep supply chains functioning end-to-end.
The commerce ministry on Wednesday asked states to keep units manufacturing food and essential items going and allow transport of intermediary goods.
Functioning is crippled in hundreds of state-regulated agriculture produce marketing committees or mandis (farm markets). Farm labour is scare and loading of freight has declined. Nearly 400,000 trucks were stranded in various states on day one of the lockdown.
Data from the railway ministry suggest that freight loading has dipped from a usual 10,000 cargo rakes per day to just about 3-4,000 now.
Nearly 700 million people of the country’s 1.3 billion rely directly or indirectly on an agriculture-derived livelihood. The farm sector contributes 16% to the country’s $2.6 trillion GDP.
Given the railways’ massive reach backed by a 65,000-km network, revenue from carriage of agricultural goods is critical for the railways too. India’s rail network—Asia’s largest—transports nearly 23 million people every day but passenger trains have ground to a halt.
“Central government orders are not reaching ground-level authorities. Even though orders were issued a day before some movement on essential goods was allowed, thousands of vehicles in transit since the lockdown are stranded,” All-India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) president Kultaran Singh Aitwal said.
The biggest bottleneck is that once trucks carrying essential goods drop off their consignments, they are then stuck as state authorities don’t allow them to go back empty, Aitwal said. This problem of one-way traffic needs immediate resolution, he said.
It’s not surprising that online retailers and neighbouhood provision stores too are running low on supplies in many cities. The problem goes all the way back to the major state-regulated farm markets run by bodies known as agriculture produce marketing committees.
“We are open because the Maharashtra government asked us to but facing big constraints,” said Prakash Kumawat, assistant secretary of Lasalgoan APMC, Asia’s largest onion trading hub near Nashik, Maharashtra.
Farmers are finding it difficult to transport their produce, he said. “Our main problem is that labour that grades and packs harvest are in short supply. Only 30% is available,” he said.
“This is another humanitarian crisis. Thousands of drivers are stranded with no food and shelter or parking facility and they are also at risk of getting exposed to Covid-19. This is going to lead to scarcity in essential goods,” Aitwal said.
Nearly 26,000 wagons of goods such as grains, salt, edible oil, sugar, milk, fruits, vegetables, coal and petroleum products are in transit.
“On an average we used to load about 10,000 rakes of freight cargo every day and that has gone down to about 4,000 rakes per day,” a senior railway ministry official said.
On March 26, 24,009 wagons were loaded for essential commodities in all. That included 1417 wagons of foodgrains, 42 wagons of sugar, 42 wagons of salt, 20,784 wagons of coal and 1,724 wagons of petroleum products.
Shortages should normally cause a spike in inflation, something not seen in rural areas. Prices have risen more in urban areas.
“Prices have risen in urban areas because of a rise in overall demand and short supply. On the other hand, farmers will be forced to sell at throwaway prices in rural areas, where prices will dip,” said Prof. Himanshu, an economist with Jawaharlal Nehru University.
For instance, data from the Centre’s price monitoring cell for March 24 shows that in Delhi, retail prices of urad, a lentil, jumped to ₹108 a kg from ₹85 a year ago, a 25% rise. On the other hand, all-India average prices were a tad lower at ₹97.32 a kg from a year-ago price of ₹99.25.
“We have recommended to the government to issue orders allowing farmers in groups of seven or 10 to harvest,” said Balwinder Singh Sandhu, agriculture commissioner, Punjab, as the pandemic tests the limits of federal and state authorities to keep the nation of 1.3 billion people going.