Reducing Rural Distress in Covid Times

Bharat Dogra

Acute distress prevails in most rural areas of India due to widespread disruption of livelihoods. While farmers have been becoming increasingly tense regarding the new difficulties in harvesting, threshing and marketing their rabi (winter) crops of cereals, pulses, oilseeds etc., poorest landless households and migrant labour households face hunger and are deeply concerned regarding delays and difficulties in accessing the various reliefs announced by the government.

In such exceptionally difficult conditions one step which can bring relief is that the government should make advance payment to farmers for about one fourth of their crops at fair rates, on the condition that they in turn will make immediate payment to farm workers at a fair price. This crop which has been purchased by the government by giving advance payment should remain within the same village or the same cluster of villages so that this can be used for normal rations and special relief rations as well as well as for supplies for nutrition schemes like mid-day meals, anganwadi and sabala. Till such time that these schemes are not fully functional in these troubled times, the food supplies meant for these schemes can be added to the relief supplies meant to be distributed as per government announcements.

Such an initiative will have several benefits. Farmers will have immediate cash in their hands and a part of this cash will reach workers employed in harvesting, threshing, loading etc. The necessity for farmers to rush to mandis will be reduced as they will immediately get at least a significant part of the expected sales receipts without having to venture out of their village. The ration, relief and nutrition schemes will not have to depend on outside supplies and adequate supplies within the village will be ensured. This will contribute a lot to ensuring that there is no delay in food reaching people. Once farmers have cash, they will be able to complete the harvest work in a satisfactory way in time and there will be no loss of any standing crop due to delay or difficulties in harvesting.

Of course, in such a scheme farmer will be free to decide whether to accept such an offer of advance payment or not, but given their cash crunch as well as the obvious benefits of this most of them are likely to accept happily.

If this is implemented properly, there will be no additional burden on the finances of the government. In any case the government has to procure cereals and to a lesser extent some other crops, so what is the harm in making some advance payment when there is so much to be gained in other ways? The government and the administration will actually save money involved in needless transport of procured food items across long distances. In addition, the administration will benefit if sudden big rush of farmers on roads and in mandis can be avoided, and when farmers come in a more staggered and relaxed way for selling additional part of their crop later, it will be easier to handle the situation while also maintaining social distancing.

Of course, various government agencies will have to make internal adjustments to implement such a scheme but this should not be difficult keeping in view the tremendous benefits that accrue from this scheme.

If wheat crop is harvested manually then there will be a very important extra benefit that a lot of fodder will be saved and this is going to be very important in the coming months to sustain a main income earning activity of villages in the form of dairy work as well as to feed draught animals.

In recent years a lot of crop harvesting work has been taken up by combine harvester machines. In the case of some crops like paddy this causes a lot of pollution as parts of crop not removed by machine are set on fire by farmers. The lower economic costs often cited as a justification for harvesting machines are often exaggerated, and also ignore costs like substantial loss of fodder, air pollution and loss of local employment. Wherever harvesting work is done manually by workers it is a big support of income security and food security for landless farm workers.

It is an appropriate time to reconsider this over-mechanisation of harvesting work as this year more workers are in their villages and so prospects for manual harvesting are better. Respected village elders, teachers, social activists etc. can help to bridge the growing gap between farmers and workers so that they can cooperate for completing harvesting, threshing and storage work safely in time.

Essential requirements of social harvesting can be maintained in this work with some planning and soap and water can be provided adequately at work-sites.

The scheme outlined above can be changed in small ways in some places to keep in view differences in local conditions. More concern should be shown for protecting the interests of small farmers and sharecroppers.

Of course, situation is somewhat different in villages where only (or mainly) specialized cash crops and non-food crops are grown, and for these villages planning has to be somewhat different.

However, most villages or village-clusters grow a mix of staple food crops. While procuring crops a special attention should be given to procuring also the more nutritious millet crops as their inclusion in ration, relief and nutrition schemes will be very beneficial.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.   

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.  

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Apr 27, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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