On the 24th of March the government of India enforced a nationwide lockdown, which has been in force since then with some modifications. Every non-essential operation was shut down and people were restricted from leaving their homes. All transport services were suspended, with exceptions for essential goods and emergency services, although mudded by the ambiguity of what is considered an essential good. Some services are allowed to operate between the hours of 6.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m., generating large crowds at grocery stores, banks and ATMs during the opening hours.
National lockdown is a dire situation for all, but some groups are affected harder than others. In particular, lockdown measures amplified the rural-urban disparity. Farmers in rural areas cannot sell their seasonal produce, whilst extension and support services are nowhere to be seen. At the same time, consumers do not have access to their daily necessities. The imposed restrictions on the movement of goods and people impeded India’s food value chains, with a looming stagnation.
Despite the fact that the situation may sound similar to the rest of the world, the case of India has one unique aspect – the size of its informal sector. The International Labour Organization estimates that 90% of the nation’s workforce is involved in the informal sector, this translates into 400 million people with fragile livelihoods and insecure working conditions. The lack of safety nets and social benefits makes them extra vulnerable during crises and the lockdown measure disrupts their income generation activities or puts them on hold.
Much of the Indian agriculture and its allied sectors are informal, but make up the largest source of livelihoods for Indian people – 70% of the country’s rural households depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82% of farmers being small and marginal.
Even though agriculture feeds the nation it only generates 16,5% of the country’s GDP, which is not high compared to other sectors and is the reason why it has had a low priority on the government’s agenda. The COVID-19 induced standstill value chains in combination with a large informal economy pose a risk to India’s food security, with repercussions to financial stability.
The government attempted to reduce the burden put on farmers during COVID-19, though these efforts are perceived as insufficient, especially in regard to small and marginal farmers. Efforts made so far, such as the financial support to landowning farmers, are criticized by organizations representing the interests of smallholder farmers. Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Punjab, argues that measures taken are far from adequate because most Indian farms are small and many farmers are landless laborers. The government also facilitated the issuing of ratio-cards to families, an action that has proven ineffective as the distribution systems are area-specific and the access to shops is limited.
Similar practical issues exist within the whole food supply chain, caused by various COVID-19 related bottlenecks. As farmers cannot sell their produce, they deem harvesting as redundant and a waste of resources, which forces many landless farm workers out of employment.
Meanwhile, farmers who still want to harvest their crops struggle to find people to work on their fields due to the lockdown immobility and lack of public transport. A rich spring harvest have therefore been left to waste. Furthermore, the shortage of drivers in the transportation sector has stopped the flow in other parts of the supply chain, affecting the livelihoods of middlemen and market salesmen.
The above developments put immense pressure on farmers and have led to a rise of suicides among farmers, the first reported case was brought to light in April when Rambhavan Shukla, 52 years old, committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on the outskirts of Jaari village. According to the family of the deceased, Shukla had been searching for farm workers the past few days, without any luck due to the lockdown.
So, what can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in India? Evidently, a country as large as India cannot rely on only one kind of measure and rigid approach to lock everyone and everything down. The lockdown has made life harder not only for farmers but for the entire society, seen in the effects on storage salesmen and food consumers.
The immobilizing policies were not well thought through, they have created bottlenecks in the food supply chain and harmed the most vulnerable. As the country is slowly reopening, it is becoming clearer that the colour zone system should have been initiated at an earlier stage. According to this approach, Indian districts are divided into red, orange and green colour zones based on the severity of infection spread. This makes it easier for regions to take restrictive measures compatible and adapted to the situation at hand, rather than depending on nation-wide actions.
Region-specific policies would reduce bottlenecks in the food value chains, such as enhancing farmers’ access to markets, in turn reducing the negative fiscal impact and financial despair for the individuals, as well as helping to contain the virus. A simplistic way to implement area-specific policies would be to allow low- and non-infected areas to continue to operate with precautionary measures (wearing facemask, sanitation, ensuring the safety of elderly and immunocompromised individuals, testing and contact tracing etc.). This would allow for the economic circulation to continue, for companies and individuals to work, pay their fair share of taxes and contribute to the government revenue. Subsequently, the government would be able to direct funds towards vulnerable industries and communities, again ensuring a functional economy.
Implementing area-specific regulations and management could also reduce inter-state co-dependency and shorten the value chains (trans-state consumption, for example, has more middlemen). Yet, it is important to remember that urban food security will remain a major concern due to large cities’ dependency on production from rural areas, which adds another dimension to food security challenges.
Ensuring that supply chains function without interruption is vital for India’s food security and this is only possible if farmers have secure access to markets. Preparing for possible future pandemics or other immobilising occurrences, the government should design and implement agricultural and food policies that can cope with bottlenecks and keep the food value chains going.
This article was contributed by the Indian NGO Kudumbam. Kudumbam works to strengthen vulnerable communities through the building of multi-stakeholder partnerships for the preservation and regeneration of native flora and fauna, in order to ensure sustainable rural livelihood and create environmentally benign and socially just bio villages.