“This internship project studies the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture in five villages of Osmanabad district of Maharashtra in the months of June and July 2020. This project was undertaken in collaboration with Jnana Prabodhini, Harali. It explores the impact of the lockdown on production as well as post production activities. It also tries to understand the impact on the ensuing Kharif cropping season of 2020 and farmers’ investment decisions. 55 farmers have been interviewed for this study along with focus group discussions and five case studies. I find that farmers have incurred losses in transporting and selling onions and other vegetables. As the prices crashed during the lockdown farmers had to incur losses in case of Soybean and milk. They also had to face a debt crisis and a delay in their short investment decisions.”
The strict lockdown imposed in India for two months of April and May 2020 to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, has severely impacted various sectors except the ones that fall under the bracket of essential services. Self- employed and casual workers, who have no social security nets were worst affected because of the lockdown (Azim Premji University, 2020). The lockdown has severely impacted the rural areas as well. Farmers have been impacted due to supply chain disruptions. A huge part of the population depends on the agriculture sector and thus the impact of the pandemic on the agriculture sector, is crucial to understand. The impact of the lockdown on the agriculture sector has differed in different regions of the country depending on the climate, cropping pattern, irrigation pattern, labour pattern and market access of the region.
This project studies the impact of pandemic led lockdown on the agriculture sector, focusing on the five villages in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra. The research was carried out as a part of an internship with Jnana Prabodhini Institute, Harali. The fieldwork was undertaken in Harali, Jevali, Hipparga, Toramba and Karvanji which belong to Lohara taluka of Osmanabad district. Osmanabad district belongs to Marathwada region of Maharashtra, which is one of the rainfall deficient and drought prone regions of the state. Osmanabad district is one of the least urbanized districts in Maharashtra and ranks 30th amongst the 35 districts in the state with respect to the Human Development Index (CDAP, 2015). The five selected villages have been rehabilitated after the major Latur earthquake of 1993 which measured 6.2 on the Richter scale. People lost their lives and livelihoods and faced major destruction (Rattanani, 1993). These villages do not have any assured source of irrigation. Farmers have bore-wells and wells but water is available only for 7 to 8 months provided there is decent rainfall. Considering the vulnerabilities in agriculture pertaining to this region, the need was felt to study the impact of COVID-19 in this region of Maharashtra.
This research is based on field work which uses primary research methods such as rapid survey, focused group discussions and case studies. A sample size of 55 was chosen for the rapid survey. Considering the severity and spread of disease in Maharashtra, it was not possible to do extensive fieldwork, with a wider and a larger sample. Thus a small sample size was chosen. A purposive sampling technique was employed to ensure that different farmers were chosen depending upon land holding size (small/big landholding), crops they grow (cereals, pulses, short duration crops, vegetables, perennial crops) and castes they belong to (Maratha, Dhangar, OBC, Muslim, SC).
Impact on post-production activities for Rabi crops
The impact on agriculture marketing is discussed in this section. The impact has been different for different crops grown in this area.
Impact on cereals and oilseeds
Chickpea, sorghum and wheat are the major crops grown in the Rabi cropping season, i.e. from December to March. Sorghum and wheat are mainly cultivated for subsistence purposes and chickpea is grown in surplus amount. Chickpea cannot be stored for a long time; there are chances of it getting damaged. Hence farmers tend to sell it as soon as it is harvested. Out of the 55 farmers interviewed for the survey, 43 farmers cultivate chickpea. Out of these 43 farmers, 25 farmers reported that they could sell their produce before the lockdown; in fact 6 of them could sell at MSP. Out of the rest, 10 farmers grow chickpea for subsistence purposes, 5 managed to sell the chickpea amidst lock down and three are still awaiting a proper opportunity to sell the produce (during the time of the interview) (See chart). According to my survey results farmers did not face a huge issue in marketing of the cereals and pulses grown in the Rabi season.
Figure 1: Impact of lockdown on chickpea
Impact on Soybean
Soybean, a Kharif crop, is harvested in the month of October. It is the major commercial crop in this region and farmers tend to hoard the produce till they get the best price for it. Accordingly, farmers had hoarded their soybean produce from the previous Kharif season till the month of March as the prices were surging. The price of Soybean had gone up to Rs. 4000-4500 in the month of February and March 2020, was expected to rise even further. Instead, prices crashed all of a sudden to Rs. 3600 – Rs. 3800 as soon as the lockdown was imposed. 54 farmers out of the 55 farmers interviewed cultivate Soybean. Out of those 54 farmers, 21 farmers reported that they had hoarded their produce with an expectation to get a higher price for their produce. On one hand, price of Soybean had crashed and on the other hand the produce cannot be stored for too long as its weight gets reduced. At the time of interview, farmers were facing huge uncertainty whether the prices would rise again or if they would now be forced to sell their produce at a lower price compared to the price before the lockdown.
Impact on short duration crops
Perishable crops like fruits and vegetables cannot be stored for longer duration and farmers growing them were worst hit during the lockdown. Onion is the major crop grown in this region which is sold in the Hyderabad market. 20 farmers out of the 55 farmers interviewed grow onions in the Rabi season. As the interstate transport was completely halted during the lockdown, farmers faced severe issues in selling their produce. 16 out of the 20 farmers who grow onions reported that they incurred huge losses as they were unable to transport their produce to the Hyderabad market. Farmers had to sell their produce locally at an extremely low price or had to see their produce rot. The price of onions crashed from Rs. 35 per kilogram to Rs. 10.
10 farmers out of the 55 farmers interviewed grow vegetables like cucumber, potatoes, tomatoes, brinjal, fenugreek, dill, spinach, ladies fingers, gourds etc. on a smaller scale. These farmers were worst hit due to the closure of markets. They had to sell the produce locally at an extremely low price or were not able to sell at all and incurred huge losses.
Impact on production activities for Kharif crops
One would think that lockdown would have a one-time impact and now that it has been withdrawn it would not have any consequences on the upcoming cropping season of Kharif 2020. But this is not the case. The pandemic is unfortunately showing a domino effect.
On the positive side, farmers in the selected villages reported that they benefited due to reverse migration. The rate of out-migration from these villages to cities like Pune, Mumbai, and Nagpur is large. These people returned back to the villages due to the fear of the pandemic. They proved to be of great help in harvesting the Rabi crop. 11 farmers out of 55 farmers interviewed reported that they received help from their relatives who returned home.
However, there were several other continued negative impacts as discussed below.
Impact on debt and credit
The newly sworn Chief Minister of Maharashtra announced a loan waiver scheme for farmers in December 2019. During the discussions with the farmer groups it was understood that the process of waiving the loans has been delayed due to the lockdown. Loan waiving process requires farmer’s thumb impression which is connected to the Aadhaar data base. Considering the rapid spread of the disease in Maharashtra, the process was halted. It was also understood from the survey that the process of issuing new crop loans has also been delayed due to the lockdown. Farmers cannot wait longer as they have to get agriculture inputs after a few rain showers. As a result, small and marginal farmers were forced to borrow money either from informal money lenders or from relatives or friends.
About agriculture inputs
In order to avoid excessive crowding at the agriculture inputs’ shop, the agriculture department had announced a scheme according to which farmers were supposed to get essential agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilizers directly on their fields. These inputs had to be delivered to the farmer groups before the Kharif sowing season. Out of the 55 farmers interviewed in the 5 selected villages, none of the farmers had got seeds and fertilizers in their nearby locations from the agriculture department. Farmers reported that they personally bought agriculture inputs from nearby Krushi seva kendras.
Impact on animal husbandry
Farmers in the selected villages have approximately 2-3 animals (cows or buffaloes) per household. They reported that the price for milk also declined during the lockdown. The closure of sweet shops and restaurants led to a decline in demand for milk. Prior to lockdown the price was 25 to 30 Rs per litre which dropped to 18 to 20 Rs per litre. Livestock animals are not reared at a commercial level in the selected villages; hence farmers did not face a severe shock. Following chart gives the breakup of the total sample farmers interviewed and the impact on their livestock rearing due to the lockdown.
Figure 2: Impact on livestock farming – Milk
Impact on current investment decisions
Farmers’ current investment decisions like building shade for domestic animals, buying new tractor, building new pipelines for irrigation for the new cropping season were halted or delayed due to the lockdown. They were also unable to build shade for their livestock animals as raw material suddenly got expensive and labour was unavailable.
Conclusion and Way Forward
The farmers in the selected villages were not directly affected by the disease as the region was COVID-19 free in the months of April and May; instead they were affected due to the policy decision of the sudden lockdown. They faced several issues like price crash in case of soybean, lack of market access in case of the perishable crops, fall in market demand in case of milk production and halting of investment decisions. There were other unique effects such as saving of labour cost due to reverse migration of family members. These effects have also been discussed by other researchers. Rawal, and others state that the impact on producers of perishables vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs and poultry has been even more severe than on the producers of cereals, pulses and oilseeds (Rawal, Kumar, Pais and Verma, 2020). Dev and Sengupta have discussed about the impact on dairy industry due to closure of sweet shops and restaurants during the lockdown (Dev and Sengupta, 2020).
The difficulties and issues faced by the farmers due to the lockdown cannot be undone but they could be saved from further damage. On one hand there is a need to tackle the health issues and save the lives of people in rural areas, and on the other hand it is necessary to save their livelihoods from further damage. There is a serious need to make the vulnerable farmers more resilient to external shocks. Following are few suggestions to help farmers resist the sudden shocks.
Farmer collectives like Farmer Producing Organizations (FPOs) and Farmer Producing Companies (FPCs) could be established and strengthened to collectivize and give voice to the small and marginal farmers. It has been argued that these collectives would be extremely beneficial in reaping the benefits of economies of scale (Boss, Pradhan and Roy, 2020).
Farmers could be provided the knowledge, awareness and resources of alternative methods of storing the perishable crops. If farmers are made aware about the method of processing onions, like making sliced dry onions, they would be saved from losses.
Farmers get to know the prices through WhatsApp groups or from their family and friends. They do not have firm and fool proof information about the real time prices. It is extremely important for the farmers to have some knowledge about the market in order to avoid the problem of information asymmetry.
Limitations of this project
The sample size chosen for this project being very small cannot give statistically significant results. A deeper research needs to be done to get a broader picture of the real situation. Thus this project can be considered as a pilot study for further research.