Post Mortem

Policy reforms for sustainable agriculture in post COVID

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 9/3/2020 12:56:33 PM IST

 The ongoing health crisis around COVID19 has affected all walks of life. Protecting lives of people suffering from the disease as well as frontline health responders have been the priority of nations. Governments have swung into actions since the Corona virus attack created an unprecedented situation. During these challenging times, how does Indian Agriculture respond to the crisis and how do government measures affect 140 million farm households across the country and thereafter impact the economy of a very important country in the developing world? We assess the immediate challenges that COVID19 has posed to the farm sector and suggest mitigation measures to ensure a sustainable food system in the post-crisis period. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has issued state-wise guidelines for farmers to be followed during the lockdown period. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has also announced specific measures that address the “burden of debt servicing” due to COVID19 pandemic. 

In spite of all these measures and in view of continuing restrictions on movements of people and vehicular traffic, concerns have been raised regarding negative implications of COVID19 pandemic on the farm economy. Moreover, any severe disruption to the supply of perishable fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fish, etc. having mobilized to meet the increasing demand from a bulging middle class as well as urban and rural consumers, may create irreparable damage to all actors in the supply chain. The migration of workers from few parts to their native places has also triggered panic buttons, as they are crucial for both harvesting operations and post-harvest handling of produce in storage and marketing centers. The sale of dairy products; fish; poultry, etc. has also been hit during the lockdown period as the uptake by the organized industry players has been affected due to shortage of workforce and transport issues. 

The poor sections of society are always the hardest hit in any disaster or pandemic situation. With about 85 percent of Indian farm households being small and marginal farmers, and a significant part of the population being landless farm laborers, welfare measures to contain any damage from COVID are definitely going to help them with sincere implementation. The focus of the Government therefore has to be to protect the lives of every citizen. To sustain the demand for agricultural commodities, investments in key logistics must be enhanced. Moreover, e-commerce and delivery companies and start-ups need to be encouraged with suitable policies and incentives. The small and medium enterprises, running with raw materials from the agriculture and allied sector or otherwise, also need special attention so that the rural economy doesn’t collapse. To obviate the immediate concerns of scarcity of farm labor, policies must facilitate easy availability of machinery through state entities, Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) or custom hiring centers (CHCs) with suitable incentives. Agriculture in India is a State subject, and as has been observed in past years, policies and programs vary from one State to the other. Structural reforms such as land leasing, contract farming and private agricultural markets, etc. have long been advocated to bring enhanced investments into the agriculture sector and to push its growth. However, there has not been uniform implementation of these legislations by State Governments and so the full potential of the sector is unrealized. These reforms need significant political will. Concerns of a slowdown in the zeal of States, post-COVID scenario, could be tackled with suitable incentive mechanisms by the Federal Government to the States.

Policies for Sustainable Agri in Post COVID Era:

1. Present policies need a paradigm shift to have a pro-farmer (Farmer FIRST) focus with income and prosperity being the central theme of agricultural planning in future. 

2. Agricultural diversification towards high-value crops.

3. Shifting from cereal dominance to high value crops like horticulture and livestock.

4. Adoption of new models for collection, dissemination and usage of data, effective use of ICT for knowledge dissemination.

5. Linking subsidies with efficient farming practices around use of water, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and farm mechanization. 

6. Strengthening of Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), Cooperative Banks, Agri-Clinics, Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs), Self-Help Groups (SHGs), Custom Hire Centres (CHC), etc. should receive top priority now. 

7. Establishment of successful models for credit to farmers at low interest rate like Grameen Bank in Bangladesh or to establish Kisan Banks in rural areas would be a desirable step to make a difference. 

8. High emphasis to be given to post-harvest management, linking to markets, logistics and supply chains along with price support and encourage professionalism in postharvest value addition. 

9. Organic farming by Village Producer Organizations (VPOs) and FPOs is being encouraged in large clusters. 

10. Cluster based cultivation and development to achieve economy of scale in the horticultural supply chain though FPOs/ VPOs. e-NAM, a mission for a common online market platform to facilitate pan-India trade in agriculture commodities, providing better price discovery through transparent auction process.

11. Promotion of farm mechanization to reduce the cost of production.

12. Development of horticulture based integrated farming system for small and marginal farmers.

13. Investment in human capital (education and health), especially among youth including women and access to financial services are important for enhancing income through rural non-farm sector. 

14. Establishment of custom hiring center in each village.

15. Structural reforms such as land leasing, contract farming and private agricultural markets, etc. have long been advocated to bring enhanced investments into the agriculture sector and to push its growth. 

16. Implementation of farmer friendly long term export policy.

17. Development of export-supportive infrastructure and logistics would need investments and support of the private sector that will be in the long term interests of farmers in boosting their income. 

Good news is that Government of India has now increased its focus on nutrition security and raising farmers’ income (rather than enhancing farm productivity). Changing the consumer behavior with suitable programs and incentives is already in the agenda. For all these to happen, the existing landscape of policy incentives that favor the two big staples of wheat and rice has to change. Designing agricultural policies, post-COVID19 scenario, must include these imperatives for a food systems transformation in India.

Dr. Dipak Nath, 

Dy. Director of Extension Education Central Agricultural University, Imphal

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