Fall in prices, low procurement: How COVID lockdown impacted UP farmers
The CVOID-19 lockdown has left small farmers in Uttar Pradesh district in a fix. With few buyers, transporters, and markets open, many are being forced to let their produce rot or accept terribly low prices.
The evening sun was shining from behind us in big dim yellow as we started spotting groups of men selling vegetables and summer fruits on either side of National Highway 19 on the way to Shikohabad from Agra. It seemed that an entire farmers’ market (Mandi) had come up by the highway.
The destination for the day, May 25, was another 10 km away. Having survived another day of a heatwave, we needed a hydration-break. A fresh watermelon seemed perfect to revitalise our bodies.
We stopped at a place where we found a group of 30 farmer-vendors. One of them came to us smiling, probably intrigued by our funny-looking attires and bicycles, which were far fancier than the ones they travelled on.
A big round watermelon from the collection he brought from his farm was more than enough for both of us. But the surprise came when we asked for the price.
The watermelon weighing nearly 3 kg was for just Rs 10. We proceeded to ask the prices of other fruits and vegetables: A kilogram of bottle gourd was being sold for Rs 1 to Rs 3, and ridge gourd was being sold for Rs 2.5 per kilogram.
This was the first time we got a taste of how the coronavirus lockdown had impacted the already-sluggish agricultural sector in Uttar Pradesh.
The farmer said that these makeshift “highway mandis” were not at all usual. In fact, they had been forced to sell their produce at throwaway prices by the highway because most of them couldn’t even go to the mandis which operate for not more than three hours in the morning.
“What do we do? Where do we sell our muskmelons, bottle gourds, ridge gourds and cucumbers when the mandis are not operating fully? Even if we take these there, we won't even get the money to pay the vehicle to transport these,” said Satish, one of the vendors selling vegetables by the highway.
Price of bottle gourd was Rs 15 per kilogram last year. This year, it has come down to Rs 1. Even then people are not buying because they don’t have the money to buy vegetables,” said another vendor explaining why they are accepting pittance as payment.
The next day, when we talked to more farmers on our way from Shikohabad to Etawah, we found the same story there as well.
Sitting in his farm next to the highway, Umesh Chandra spoke about the massive loss this year.
“Because of Corona, everything has gone for a toss. I grow melons on my farm and usually earn Rs 50,000 to 60,000 at this time of the year. This year I couldn’t even get Rs 20,000. Whatever we could sell on the highway, we did. But the bulk of our revenue usually comes from what we sell in the Mandis.”
“Due to the lockdown, the police would not even let us get to the Mandi. We would be stopped at various places and finally, we’d have to come back. We are in deep trouble this year. So much of my melons have gotten rotten because I couldn’t sell them,” said Umesh.
Farmers like Umesh or Satish often don’t own a lot of land, which means that to grow these vegetables they often have to take loans from private moneylenders. Not being able to sell or sell them at very low rates means that a lot of them won’t even be able to pay back those loans
Umesh Chandra’s friend Ramesh from Tondasi village of Firozabad district had grown wheat. Being a small farmer, Ramesh too has been terribly hit by the lockdown.
“There was no procurement for me. After harvest, my wheat is just lying there. Everything is closed. Where do I take it?” he said.
Uttar Pradesh is the largest wheat producing state in the country. This year, wheat procurement started on April 15, fully overlapping with the COVID-19 lockdown period, from March 23 to May 31. The state government had put a target of procuring 55 lakh tonnes.
But the procurement of the rabi (winter) crop has been sluggish at best. According to data collected by the UP government’s Food and Civil Supplies Department, 31.85 lakh tonnes of wheat (57.9% of the target) had been procured till June 17 from 5.97 lakh farmers at 5,955 procurement centres, run by 10 different agencies across the state.
This means that on an average each centre procured wheat from 100 farmers between April 15 and June 17. This, in turn, indicates that each centre purchased the grain from 1.67 farmers in a day on average.
Not only low procurement, but the farmers have also had to deal with the lockdown which rendered them unable to sell it to a procurement centre at a neighbouring district or a mill.
Not only a large number of them were unable to avail the MSP due to low procurement, but even the market price of the agricultural produce has remained below the MSP.
“Due to the lockdown, the primary problem has been in taking the produce to the market or the procurement centres,” said Mukut Singh of All India Kisan Sabha.
“Not only procurement issues, but there has been a massive drop in the price of crops this year due to the lockdown. Farmers are not being able to pay rent for the tractors. So much of tomatoes, gourds, and melons have rotten. The farmers growing flowers or betel leaves are in a major crisis. On top that the government is not releasing water for irrigation. The farmers need water immediately to sow paddy,” he added.
But there is another side of the story for farmers who have relatively larger landholding, like Vijendra Kumar Tiwari of Kosi Kalan.
He told us that the harvest was great this year, in fact, more than usual. “Also cheap labour was abundant because all the migrants who used to work in Delhi or Haryana, they’ve come back and they need something to do here. So most of them have joined agriculture because no factories are open due to the lockdown,” said Tiwari.
“Due to the abundance of cheap labour, this year we did not use a lot of machines in harvesting. And as the workers cut the crop by hand, we can even sell the Bhusa (husk) at a good price,” he added.
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(This report is a part of a series of ground reports on the migrant crisis in Uttar Pradesh by our reporters who undertook a 600 km bicycle journey from Delhi to Lucknow. See the CoronaCyclips blog here.)