After a long time, today, I went out for a walk in the fields which are barely a 2-minute walk from my house. I must also tell you that, like a responsible person, I adhered to all the social distancing norms while venturing out. My house is located in the Gurugram district of the State of Haryana. While Gurugram is the financial and industrial centre of Haryana and one of the leading IT hubs and BPO hotspots of India, it also has about 221 villages.1 In these villages, agriculture is the primary economic activity with wheat, bajra (pearl millet) and rapeseed-mustard being the major crops cultivated.2 In this blog article I wish to talk about how farming is being practised in my village during the lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While most sectors of the Indian economy have come to a standstill, agriculture is still being carried out, although at a much slower pace. With very few alternatives to farming, farmers in villages such as mine are forced to continue working in these difficult times. The countrywide lockdown has been imposed at a time when the rabi crops (crops that are sown in winter and harvested in the spring in India) of wheat and mustard are all set to be harvested. If these crops are not harvested at the right time, they can be damaged by storms, rain, fire or the overripe seeds could simply fall to the ground and be wasted.
In order to get a sense of the harvesting process during the lockdown, and to see how farmers are coping with the lack of adequate resources, I spoke to one of my uncles, and a friend’s father, both of whom are farmers in my village. They explained to me that the whole process of harvesting, at least in my village, is highly labour intensive. This labour is usually provided by workers who come from other states of the country. Due to the lockdown, most of these migrant workers have left for their homes, thereby leaving a lot of work to be done by fewer hands. Work is now being carried out by workers who were not able to go back to their homes or who voluntarily chose to stay back. Many farmers themselves are chipping in to help quicken the harvesting process. It is inevitable that the harvesting process this year will not only be a lot tougher but will also take longer.
Cutting the ripe crop, which is called katai in Northern India, is the first step of the harvesting process and requires the arduous labour of human beings. In this process, the cut stalks of the crop are first bundled into small sheaves. Later, these sheaves are piled in one corner of the field. The next process is of separating the grains from the stalk. This is a much faster process as it is completely carried out with the help of threshers, most of which are not personally owned by individual farmers but which are hired during the harvest season. However, due to the lockdown, there has been a shortage of threshers as fewer machines are being moved between villages. After the grains have been separated from the stalk, they are prepared for sale in the market, although some farmers may choose to also store a small portion of the grains for personal consumption. The stalks from which the grains are separated are further processed by machinery and stored as tuda (residue from the harvest of wheat) which is a source of fodder for milch animals.
While in conversation with my uncle and friends father, they told me that, usually, as soon as the grains are separated and dried, they are directly taken to the mandi (market) for sale. But this time, due to the lockdown, the grains could not be transported to the market. This has created a situation where additional arrangements have to be made in order to store the seeds until they are able to be sent to the market. This not only increases the labour but also increases storage costs and the inability to derive any immediate income, although some farmers have managed to sell their produce to private companies. However, as the Central Government announced an easing of lockdown restrictions for the agricultural sector from 20 April 2020, the farmers have started to go to mandis to sell their produce.
My uncle sells almost all of his produce to Heli Mandi, a municipal committee in Gurugram’s Pataudi. Through an online platform known as Meri Fasal Mera Byora (My Crop My Report), the entire process of sale and procurement of seeds is carried out. To begin with, in order to obtain a sale permit, the farmer has to register on the online platform, after which a panjikaran (registration) number is issued to the farmer. Next, a date is assigned to the farmer for the sale of his produce, along with a message notification and/or a phone call on a registered mobile number. Ever since the lockdown, only a limited number of farmers have been issued permits to sell their produce in the Mandi as the Government is taking measure to ensure that markets are not overcrowded and social distancing measures are adhered to. Each day, only 100 farmers, divided into a morning and evening batch of 50 farmers each are permitted to sell their wheat in the mandi.
The buyers are mainly from the Bhartiya Khadya Nigam (Food Corporation of India or FCI) and the Haryana State Co-operative Supply and Marketing Federation Limited (HAFED), although some farmers sell their produce to private companies despite receiving lower payments. While mustard is sold at ₹4,400/quintal (100kg) and wheat at ₹1,925/quintal to Government companies, mustard is sold at ₹3,500-4,000/quintal and wheat at ₹1,800-1,900/quintal to private companies. Besides, the government has announced a bonus for those farmers who will sell their produce in the month of June.
As of today, my uncle is still waiting for his permit.