Two days before Narendra Modi announced a lockdown of the country, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, had put in place several restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, among these, was intra-state travel. However, the restrictions did not apply to those providing essential services, which include the supply chain of groceries.
But, in several parts of rural Maharashtra, the state police is yet to distinguish between what is and isn't on the list of essential services.
Raju Shetty, a farmer leader from western Maharashtra, said his phone has not stopped ringing with reports of farmers "across the state" complaining about police harassment.
“Farmers cannot follow 100 percent curfew,” he said in a telephonic interview. “If a farmer does not go to the farm, how will you get vegetables? But at the moment, farmers have harvested large amounts of vegetables that they are not able to take to the market.”
A farmer in Latur said the price of watermelons he has harvested has collapsed because of lack of mobility.
“I invested Rs 2.5 lakh in 1.5-acre land and I have now harvested 40,000 kilos of watermelon. At Rs 12 per kilo, I would have normally made Rs 4.8 lakh. But I am currently being offered only Rs 2 per kilo. I stand to lose around Rs 4 lakh,” the farmer said.
Ajit Navale, an agriculture activist based in Ahmednagar, said drivers are scared to take their vehicles out because of the police.
“Vegetables are perishable,” he said. “Allowing grocery stores to function won’t be enough if the farmers supplying goods to them are not allowed to sell it in the market.”
Across India, according to a report, 15,000 litres of milk and 10,000 kilos of veggies were dumped as a result of police action.
Maharashtra agriculture minister Dada Bhuse accepted these things happened at a few places but said the state is facilitating the transport of farmers’ harvest to the consumer.
“The police cannot see what is inside when the truck emerges in front of them,” Bhuse said. “But after inspection, there are clear orders to let the farmers function. And if anyone is still facing difficulties, they can call me directly.”
While the orders from the top may be taking a while to percolate down to the bottom, the farmers are facing two kinds of problems. The short-term problem of not being able to transport their harvest to the market, which, the agriculture minister has assured, would be ironed out soon. The second, long-term problem is of those who have not yet harvested their Rabi crops because the workers cannot get to the farms.
Farmer Umakant Patil said his relatives in Badgaon taluka of Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district are not able to harvest sweet corn. “Once harvested, it has to be sold quickly when it is moist,” Patil said. “If it dries up, it is of no use. We are staring at a loss of about Rs. 2 lakhs if the government does not act quickly.”
Bhuse said that the orders of letting farm labourers work have also been given to the police. “They can work in farms by maintaining two meters of distance,” he said.
Navale, however, said that the crops could perish if the state orders do not percolate down to taluka and village level police soon.
“It has rained twice already, and the farmers need to harvest the onions in Ahmednagar soon,” he said. “Right now, the labourers are not being allowed to move. Farming is a time-bound profession. If the farmers are not able to harvest on time, their effort of the entire season goes down the drain.”
March and April is also the time when farmers prepare their land for the upcoming Kharif season beginning June or July.
With nationwide lockdown, there is a serious shortage of fertilisers and pesticides. Kishor Tiwari, who was appointed to the task force of welfare of farmers by former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, and is currently with Shiv Sena, said if the farmers fall short in preparing their land, their miseries would continue even after the lockdown ends.
“The entire Kharif crop could lose its productivity,” he said. “It is difficult to say how much the agriculture sector would suffer, but it is likely to be a setback of over Rs 50,000 crore.”
The losses include the farmers cultivating dairy products. Shetty said most of the distress calls he has received have come from dairy farmers.
“They have not been able to distribute their milk,” he said. “Because of the shutdown, hotels are shut. So there is no demand for products like paneer, rabdi, and so on. Because several labourers have been laid off, there is no one to process milk and make butter or milk powder. So the farmers’ milk is only being procured on alternate days. It is a big loss for them.”
Bhuse said every sector is going to suffer in varying degrees, and the state is doing everything it can to mitigate losses.
“We are working towards making seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides available to the farmers,” he said. “We are also planning to distribute advance ration of two months to the poorest of the poor.”
Navale said the state’s Public Distribution System normally constitutes of rice and wheat but in these circumstances, he said, “It should add pulses, oil and sugar as well.”
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Updated Date: Mar 26, 2020 15:53:46 IST