1. Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India;
2. Shri N S Tomar, Minister for Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare;
3. Smt Nirmala Sitharaman, Finance Minister;
4. Shri Amit Shah, Home Minister;
5. Dr Ramesh Chand, Member Agriculture, NITI Aayog
Dear Sirs / Madam,
This note is prepared with the understanding that all producers including farm workers have to be protected with an economic support package, even as some produce itself might go wasted and most workers may not get adequate work during these extra-ordinary times. However, for smooth food supply chains to continue, all produce should also be protected as much as possible, starting from harvesting operations having to be done on time during the lock-down period, till the retail point of purchase by consumers. The government should adopt different measures for perishables and non-perishable commodities. Some of the demands below are related to better enforcement at the ground level, of the exclusions already provided in the MHA guidelines for restrictions during the lock-down period.
1. NO HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE AGAINST FARMERS, VENDORS AND FARM HARVEST TRANSPORTERS: The first and foremost demand – ensure that the police deployed at the frontlines (on city/town borders, state borders and in cities etc.) do not harass and resort to violence against any farmers/primary producers who are bringing their produce (especially fruits, vegetables, milk, fish, eggs etc.) to places that they can market the same/to godowns/cold storage units etc.. This then includes street vendors who will in turn sell the same by going around the urban areas, or by locating themselves in regular intervals around the urban spaces as well as truck/auto drivers who provide transportation services to these farmers. There are many reports coming in from different parts of India about such harassment happening and mindless, over-zealous violence from police personnel.
a. This requires the Home Ministry to send a special advisory to the police departments in all states where the frontline personnel are made to understand and appreciate that this is an essential service that is being continued for the survival and well being of all locked-down citizens. It is becoming clear that the GoI’s guidelines of 23rd March 2020 excluding some goods and services from the lockdown restrictions are not understood by enforcement personnel on the ground.
b. The farmers, transporters, vendors etc. can be issued Special ID Cards or Passes and permissions for this period, if required.
c. Panchayats can issue such passes to farmers, for instance. This is highly doable and should be done in a day or two.
2. ENSURE THAT REGULATED MARKET YARDS RUN, WITH NEW NORMS FOR PROTECTION OF ALL PERSONS INVOLVED IN MARKET TRADING – THE APMCs SHOULD ENSURE ALL COMPLIANCES REQUIRED: For ensuring that essential food supplies are not disrupted, it is important that mandis or regulated market yards are run, even if in a low-key fashion. Norms can be set for separate time slots to be announced for different villages or token systems can be arranged for exact time slots to be allotted to particular farmers who are willing to sell their produce in the mandi, to ensure proper isolation. Additional protection and hygiene measures can be put in place too. However, three weeks of the mandis closing down will mean excessive hardship for certain kinds of farmers and the same should be addressed by opening the mandis. Traders who are not keen on being exposed to the threat of the virus by being present in the market yards have the option of using e-NAM in any case. FPOs can be allowed to act as commission agents for one month as a special case, if need be.
3. ENSURE VILLAGE LEVEL DECENTRALISED OR MOBILE PROCUREMENT BY GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: At this time of lock-down, it is important that farmers continue to find markets, and government ensures smoothen supply chains of food. For this, village level decentralised farmgate procurement of various commodities including the regular PDS items as well as other foods, should be taken up by government agencies wherever such village level procurement does not exist now (as is happening in Telangana). A rough calculation by Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission shows that this is in fact cheaper than the usual practice of procurement with farmers incurring some costs in the first leg of transportation/loading/unloading and the procurement agencies incurring some more costs in the second leg. This can be collapsed into one leg of operations and farmers could be willing to contribute partially to these costs. It will not be difficult to ensure fair average quality specified for each commodity with small teams going into the villages on the day of procurement. This will also prevent misuse of procurement facilities by traders, if done directly at the doorstep of actual cultivators.
Sub-market yard system which several states like Punjab use during procurement season can be the way forward on this. Processing mills, warehouses, panchayat compounds etc., can be designated as sub-market yards for this purpose. PACS can be roped in for this procurement, along with women’s SHGs / federations, which could even become a long term measure for their viability and more efficient procurement.
4. ENSURE THAT FARM WORKERS ARE ABLE TO CONTINUE WITH FARM HARVEST AND OTHER ACTIVITIES, BUT WITH CERTAIN BASIC PROTECTION AGAINST COVID-19, ESPECIALLY IF THEY ARE KEEN ON WORKING: There are reports coming from the ground that some workers (sugarcane cutters) are stranded in Gujarat and there needs to be support provided to give them safe shelter and food straightaway. It is important that all workers who are not keen on working and want to protect themselves against the threat of infection should be immediately rescued, and shelter/food provided to them.
However, there are also many instances of farmers having to harvest their produce, with adequate protection and care taken for protecting the farm workers from infection. Such work should not be brought under the lock-down, since without harvests of agricultural crops at the right time, food supply chains will be greatly disrupted in the country before and after April 15th. Where out of their own volition, farmers and agricultural labourers want to get involved in harvest work, provided they take adequate protection as overseen by the Panchayats and other line departments, the same should be allowed. In this context, Punjab government’s special orders around supporting harvesting of potato in the state can be looked at.
5. ENSURE THAT THERE IS UNINTERRUPTED FREE SUPPLY OF RATIONS TO AGRICULTURAL WORKERS AND FARMERS: During this lockdown period, even for farmers who are into food production, there might be need for accessing other rations. The government should provide for free supply for food kits consisting of various cooking rations beyond the PDS supplies to all rural households. There is a need to follow Kerala model here, where doorstep delivery is also being taken up.
6. ENSURE A SPECIAL SUPPORT PACKAGE FOR SMALL SCALE POULTRY FARMERS: Poultry farmers in various parts of India have been particularly badly hit due to mis-information spread in social media about the poultry birds being carriers of the Covid-19 virus. Their markets have been hit and there are reports of birds having been culled in large numbers by the farmers themselves. A special package needs to be announced for small scale poultry farmers to be bailed out in these extraordinary times.
7. PROVIDE A SPECIAL PACKAGE TO FPOs WILLING TO PROCURE PRODUCE FROM THEIR MEMBERS AS WELL AS NON-MEMBERS: Give a stimulus package to any FPO that is willing to buy from members as well as non-members, with a mandate that at least 50% of the total procurement should be from small and marginal producers, and trade in the commodity later on, with very simple assessment procedures of which FPOs can be supported without waiting for elaborate business plans etc.. Those FPOs which have any time in the past procured for the government can be straight away tasked with this and incentivised. This is the only way that post-covid-19 times will have uninterrupted food supply chains without riots etc., breaking out due to shortages if some of these measures are not put into place.
There should also be a specific order issued by District Collectors asking agriculture cooperative societies and state/central warehouses to be kept open with minimal staff and certain basic protection norms. Similarly, FPOs should also be allowed to operate within such norms.
8. FARMERS WITH PERISHABLE PRODUCE BE ALLOWED ALL METHODS OF MARKETING, WITH ADEQUATE TRANSPORTATION SUPPORT: Farmers with perishable produce (vegetables, fruits, milk, fish, meat etc.) have to be prioritised in special ways to reach their produce to functional supply chains or at least to cold storage units and other storage facilities. For this APMC statutory norms would have to be relaxed for the lockdown period using other statutory provisions, with or without the legislation itself changing, where required, to waive off the fees paid in some states by buyers. Further, even if some perishable produce goes waste, for want of prompt intervention by the government, the producers have to be supported with a fixed amount. For facilitating some of these measures, panchayats and agriculture/horticulture/animal husbandy/fisheries departments may issue special ID cards and also transfer a lumpsum support to such farmers to continue with their production and supply. This can be to a tune of Rs.10,000/- per farm household to begin with.
For vegetable supply chain, arrangements should also be made at the distribution end in the urban / semi urban areas. The bulk of the retail sales happen in govt designated vegetable mandis (or Farmers’ Markets like Rythu Bazaar or Uzhavar Santhai in a few states) and weekly haats/roadside markets that are set up in various localities across country. These mechanisms are likely to be shut down / crippled during the lockdown. Alternative distribution mechanisms, preferably through mobile van operations should be put in place immediately so that the supply chain is not choked at distribution end, and the urban consumers’ needs are met.
In existing Apni Mandis, Rythus Bazaars, Uzhavar Santhai, Kisan Bazaars etc., sales can take place with some new norms, where platforms are placed at sufficient distance from each other or even 50% platforms being used for maintaining adequate distance from each other.
9. ACTIVATE NEGOTIABLE WAREHOUSE RECEIPT SYSTEM FOR MORE GODOWNS AND STORAGE FACILITIES: More warehouses, godowns and storage facilities have to be notified as being accredited to the Negotiable Warehouse Receipt System so that distress sales can be prevented, even as produce is stored properly. For improving the confidence of lending agencies, a special credit guarantee fund would have to be set up by the government for expanding this system urgently.
10. NREGS WORKERS TO BE PAID 30 DAYS’ WAGES: MGNREGS wages of 30 days should be deposited in all jobcard holder accounts for the next 1 month without requiring them to work in addition to immediate payments that are pending against work done earlier. Works should be stopped at NREGS worksites to protect the workers from CoVID risk. The government is also required to do this, to comply with its own directives that all government and private agencies should give paid leave to their workers and make wage/salary payments for the lockdown period including for temporary & contract workers.
11. EXPAND PM-KISAN TO ALL FARMERS: PM-KISAN is limited to only land-owning farmers at this point of time, even if they are not the actual cultivators. This is a good time to add more beneficiaries to the scheme including panchayat-identified tenant farmers and livestock rearers, and landless agricultural workers. This can be initiated immediately and a DIT done for basic income at the time of lockdown to be passed on by the government to these citizens.
12. RE-SCHEDULE LOAN REPAYMENTS: It is important that RBI instructs all banks to re-schedule loan repayments under Kisan Credit Card scheme, but with the interest rates continuing as before, and without the non-repayment treated as default.
The last two measures have to be seen as slightly medium term measures beyond 3 weeks, since the repercussions of the lock-down will be felt beyond 3 weeks too.