Agriculture booms as India fights Covid-19

Amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s agriculture sector defies all odds to emerge as a bright spot with record wheat procurement despite several restrictions due to lockdown

Agriculture sector has shown a turnaround and emerged as a bright spot in India amidst Covid-19 pandemic when the economy has taken a beating. However, the agriculture sector defying all odds has done remarkably well with a record wheat procurement during the procurement season of 2020 coming to a halt.

Significantly, despite the restrictions imposed in mandis to contain the spread of Covid-19, wheat procurement has reached an all-time record of over 382 lakh tonnes in the ongoing marketing year.

According to information gathered from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, food and Public Distribution, the procurement of wheat from farmers by Government agencies has touched an all-time record figure on 16.06.2020, when total procurement for the Central pool reached 382 Lakh Metric Tonnes (LMT) surpassing the earlier record of 381.48 LMT achieved way back during 2012-13. This has been accomplished during the trying times of Covid-19 pandemic when the whole country was under lockdown.

The commencement of procurement was delayed by a fortnight due to the first lockdown and was kicked off only from April 15 in most of the wheat surplus states as against the standard April 1. Efforts have been made by state governments and all government procuring agencies led by Food Corporation of India (FCI) to ensure that wheat is procured from farmers without any delay and in a safe manner.

The number of purchase centers was increased from 14,838 to 21,869 this year by opening procurement centers in all possible locations, in addition to traditional mandis. This has helped to reduce farmers’ footfall in mandis and ensured proper social distancing. Technological solutions were deployed to regulate the daily inflows into mandis through token systems. These measures, along with actions on the ground for regular sanitizing, earmarking of dumping areas for each farmer etc, ensured that none of the food grain procurement centers became Covid-19 hotspot anywhere in the country.

Procurement of wheat by the government agencies surpassed last year’s figures of 341.31Lakh Metric Tonnes (LMT) to touch 341.56LMT on 24.05.2020, surmounting all impediments created due to the spread of COVID-19 virus and the country wide lockdown. Wheat harvesting generally starts towards the end of March and procurement commences in the first week of April every year. However, with the imposition of national lockdown with effect from midnight of 24&25.03.2020, all operations came to a standstill. The crop had ripened by then and was ready for harvesting.

Considering this, the Government of India gave relaxation to start agricultural and related activities during the lockdown period,and the procurement could start from 15.04.2020 in most of the procuring states. Haryana started a little late on 20.04.2020. The biggest challenge was to ensure that procurement is done in a safe manner during the pandemic. This was achieved through a multi-pronged strategy of awareness creation, social distancing and deployment of technology. The number of purchase centers was increased substantially reducing the farmer footfalls in individual purchase centers. New centers were set up using every facility available at gram panchayat level and the numbers were increased sharply in the major procuring states like Punjab where it went up from 1836 to 3681, 599 to 1800 in Haryana and from 3545 to 4494 in Madhya Pradesh. Using technology, farmers were provided specific dates and slots to bring their produce which helped in avoiding overcrowding. Strict social distancing norms were followed and sanitization activities were undertaken regularly. In Punjab, every farmer was allotted specific spaces earmarked for dumping of stocks and no one else was allowed to enter those areas. Only people who were directly associated were allowed to be present during daily auctions.

In addition to the threat of spread of virus, there were 3 major challenges faced by the procuring agencies in wheat procurement. As all the Jute mills were closed, production of Jute bags used for filling of procured wheat stopped, creating a major crisis. This was tackled by using more plastic bags, supplemented by used bags with very strict quality conditions. Through continuous monitoring and timely actions, it could be ensured that the procurement was not stopped due to lack of packaging materials anywhere in the country.

There were unseasonal rains in all the major producing states leading to wheat getting exposed to water. This posed a major threat to the farmers as such stocks could not be procured under normal specifications. The Government of India and Food Corporation of India (FCI) intervened immediately and after conducting detailed scientific analysis, specifications were re-fixed to ensure that no farmer is put to distress while making sure that the produce so procured meets the minimum quality requirements of the consumers.

Third challenge was the tight labour supply position as well as the general fear created among the masses about the virus. This was addressed by taking a series of confidence building measures at the local level by the state administration. Labour was provided with adequate protection safety gears like masks, sanitizers etc. and other precautionary measures were also taken to ensure their safety.

Another significant development this year is that Madhya Pradesh has become the largest contributor to the Central pool with 129 LMT wheat, surpassing Punjab which procured 127 LMT. Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan also made significant contributions to the national procurement of wheat. All over India, 42 Lakh farmers have been benefited and a total amount of about 73,500 crore has been paid to them towards Minimum Support Price for wheat. The hefty inflow of food grains into the Central pool ensured that FCI is ready to meet any additional need of food grains for the people in coming months.

Breaking all past records, Madhya Pradesh has emerged as the leading state in the country in terms of procurement of wheat for the year 2020.  Madhya Pradesh has emerged the top state in the country in wheat procurement on support price by purchasing over 1.27 crore tonnes from farmers, which accounts for 33 per cent of all wheat procured in the country.

Procurement in Punjab closed on May 31, while procurement was continuing in four districts of Madhya Pradesh — Indore, Bhopal, Ujjain and Dewas. Haryana with 73.98 lakh tonnes is the third-largest procurer of wheat in the country. The total wheat procurement in the country has touched 386 lakh tonnes as against an estimate of 440.66 lakh tonnes by the Centre. Madhya Pradesh’s share in the total procurement in the country is 33 per cent. The total procurement in the country in 2019 was 368 lakh tonnes.

Madhya Pradesh’s previous record in the procurement of wheat was in the year 2012- 2013, when the state procured 84.89 lakh tonnes. In 2019, wheat procurement stood at 73.69 lakh tonnes. The present procurement is 74 per cent above last year’s and is still continuing. Interestingly, Madhya Pradesh commenced wheat procurement only on April 15 as against March 25 in usual years, owing to the lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak. While Punjab has been a leading player in wheat procurement for years, government procurement has become big in Madhya Pradesh only, in the last few years. During the same period, 119 Lakh MT paddy was also procured by the government agencies through 13,606 purchase centers. Maximum procurement was done by Telangana which contributed 64 LMT followed by Andhra Pradesh with 31 LMT.