Covid-19 won’t be able to damage Indian agriculture: Narendra S Tomar
Union agriculture & rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar spoke to Saubhadra Chatterji and Zia Haq about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the farm sector, labour shortage during the harvest season, benefits given to farmers and farm labourers, and allocations of jobs under the rural employment guarantee scheme. Edited excerpts:
You have held a meeting with state rural and agricultural ministers. What are the main demands of the states?
The Narendra Modi government’s priority is to protect farmers, rural India, and poor people from the pandemic. We have discussed issues related to farming operations and harvesting, agriculture market and mandi operations, procurement at MSP (minimum support price), provision of seeds and fertilizers, and logistics and movement of agriculture/horticulture produce. As you know, the Centre has given several exemptions to the rural and agricultural sector from the lockdown -- including all farming operations and mandis. This has definitely helped maintaining continuity in the supply chain especially in view the harvesting and sowing season. We are monitoring the situation closely.
Farmers are still struggling with labour shortage. Moreover, social distancing and lack of transport have affected farm operations and procurement seems to be taking much longer.
There is no denying that this is not a normal situation. But I can guarantee that the Covid pandemic will not be able to damage Indian agriculture. In some states, the stranded farm labourers have been engaged according to our reports and for those who have managed to return, they are working in their home states. I can assure you that farm labourers are getting full wages and are not forced to accept lower wages.
Out of total wheat sown, almost 95% has already been harvested. Punjab has deployed 18,000 combines and Haryana has deployed 5,000 combines for harvesting and threshing. Harvesting of pulses is complete. For sugarcane, out of the total sown (acreage) 54.29 lakh hectares, harvesting has been completed all big states barring Uttar Pradesh, where it will continue till mid May 2020. Oilseed harvest is complete except of groundnut, which has been harvested to the tune of 85-90%. Summer crops have been sown in 57.07 lakh hectares this year against 41.31 lakh hectares last year.
Farmers have dumped milk and horticulture produce because of inadequate price and markets. Are you planning additional compensations for this?
This might have happened in some places due to critical situation occurred in the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the government has taken several measures to provide timely benefits to the farmers. The Modi government has already transferred Rs 17,986 crore to farmers since March 24 under the PM-Kisan scheme. Instalment due for the period of April 1 to July 31 has been paid to 81.3 million beneficiaries. Under Kisan Credit Card, Nearly two million applications have been sanctioned since February 20 for a total amount of Rs 18,000 crores.
Despite repeated advisories to states about freeing agriculture and allied activities, there are reports that farmers have been stopped from carrying out farm operations?
Initially, it might have happened in some locations but now all field functionaries have been sensitised about the exemptions including agricultural operations. A positive impact has been observed in harvesting of Rabi (winter) crops, sowing of summer crops and continuity in supply chain and procurement of agricultural commodities.
There is a surge in demand for MGNREGS jobs. How much money is the government ready to spend given its other financial burdens?
This year, we have kept a provision of 2.8 billion persondays of work. We are aware that more people might need MGNREGS backup as millions of migrant labourers have returned home. In case the states anticipate more demand for work, it can be further scaled up.
We have already approved Rs 33,300 crore of fund for the state out of which Rs 20,752 crore has already been released, liquidating all pending liabilities on wages and material. There is no pending bill on account of wages.
On April 14, 1.42 million workers were offered jobs but this increased to 7.79 million (workers) within two weeks. More than 36 million person days of work has already been created under MGNREGS and it will increase further.