Agriculture and food security challenges amid Covid-19

The pandemic has bared our vulnerabilities and shaken our collective consciousness to focus on agriculture and rural economy.
Women farmers produce vegetables through innovative farming practices in Banka, Bihar. They can sell their produce at regional markets, and earn a better income for their families. (Image: USAID, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Women farmers produce vegetables through innovative farming practices in Banka, Bihar. They can sell their produce at regional markets, and earn a better income for their families. (Image: USAID, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

India has seen large scale rural-urban migration of people trying to escape rural distress in the last few decades. “The urban areas are looked at as the centre of India's development trajectory and urbanism has become synonymous with development, as rural masses drift into the glitter and grind of the urban life,” said Prof RS Deshpande, an honorary visiting professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore.

Prof Deshpande was delivering his keynote address ‘Blearing the rural - A macro picture of rural development’ at a webinar ‘Agriculture, food security and rural development amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: Insights, concerns and the way forward for Indian villages’ organised by the Centre for Work and Welfare at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

“Around 127 million people in rural India are heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Of this, 82% are small and marginal farmers, and 107 million are agricultural labourers. Despite being the top producers of commodities like wheat, rice and sugarcane, India is not self-reliant. A comparison of the growth rate of foodgrain production with the growth rate of the adult population indicates that self-sufficiency is a distant dream. The per capita availability of foodgrains stands at 401 gms per person per day, which is less than the minimum international standard of 500 gms per person per day. The factors coming in the way of food security are road density, ration cards, gender-related indicators, consumer price index, dependency ratio etc.,” said Prof Deshpande.

Prof Deshpande highlighted that the Lewis Framework is wrongly applied to India’s migration scenario, as the migration out of agriculture is being absorbed by the service sector instead of the manufacturing segment.

The decreasing rate of the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product (GDP) is not supported by a decreasing rate of the workforce in agriculture, implying that the carrying capacity of agricultural land in rural areas is rapidly rising.

“Policies have always focused on the development of the industrial sector from 1951 onwards, and yet, we have not achieved the desired growth. Agriculture has always seen a 3% growth rate for 60 years except during the periods 1967-68 and 1989-90 when there was a spurt in growth. Though, productivity is increasing, has the country contributed sufficient efforts and attention to the growth of the agriculture sector?” said Prof Deshpande.

He highlighted that since the 1960s, the elasticity of the availability of net foodgrains to income has been far lower than 1. This is conceptualised as arithmetic availability. Under this, the per person per day availability of foodgrains is increasing steadily because of diversified diets including fruits and vegetables, mutton, chicken etc. At the aggregate level, arithmetic availability cannot be lowered.

While highlighting the problems faced by the poor such as malnutrition, wasting, stunting of the children, Prof. Deshpande claimed that the lack of accessibility to foodgrains is due to the low purchasing power of individuals. The market is tainted with corruption in food markets and the public distribution system. India is home to the largest poverty-ridden and undernourished population in the world despite having resources and availability of grains. The nine states having a poverty rate higher than the national average are Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh. 

The Indian economy has faced economic retrogression. Even before the pandemic, the economy was in a downward spiral with GDP growth rates falling steadily. Even institutions such as RBI projected a negative growth rate of GDP. But, the government still hoped that injections of investments would boost the economy. And now, Covid-19 is to blame for the sinking economy.

Even after 70 years of planning and independence, the list of backward districts in the country in the second plan is the same as the one in the XIth plan showing the poor state of things. Now with the pandemic, the blame game is in full force and it is unclear as to how long it will take to recover from the teething troubles we are facing from the last 70 years.

“The dismal state of the public health networks in rural areas is evident from the fact that 23% of the villages in India are without primary healthcare centres (PHCs). Lack of preparedness with no oxygen masks, ventilators, PPE kits for doctors in rural areas is a hidden bomb. The average distance to the primary health care centre is about 48 km. The cities that boasted of having the best medical facilities collapsed under pressure,” said Prof Deshpande highlighting the problems posed by Covid-19.  

The agricultural supply chains have collapsed leaving many people unemployed and increasing the pressure in the rural areas. Severe unemployment may lead to social distress, robberies and theft and increased poverty would lead to more inequality. During Covid-19, reverse migration took place due to lack of cash and food. An outcome is the further casualisation of the workforce where poverty and inequality have increased. The estimated global economic loss is of the order of $5.8 to 8.8$ trillion as on March 2020, as per the Asian Development Bank. It is estimated to be anywhere near 19% now. 

Prof Deshpande suggested that there’s a need to redefine economic contours. The following solutions can bring the rural economy back on track.

  • Employment schemes need to be properly implemented across regions to reduce unemployment,
  • The primacy of the agricultural sector needs to be brought back, 
  • Returned migrant labourers must be settled in their original jobs, 
  • There should be an increase in public investment in infrastructure in rural India, 
  • There is a strong need for rural industrialisation, which will help employ rural people without migrating them far off,
  • Institutionalising MGNREGS so that they will be the sole supplier of labourers for infrastructure projects and wages will be fixed by operators under MGNREGS.

“Two kinds of responses were observed in the rural, agricultural and food security sectors. Firstly, agriculture which is normally taken very lightly by the state and central governments is increasingly being seen as the silver lining during the pandemic. Secondly, with the availability of huge stocks and the fair performance of the rabi and kharif crops, it is believed that there’s no food security problem,” says Prof D N Reddy, a retired economics professor and former dean, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad.

Rural areas have not been severely affected by pandemic as compared to urban. The other way to look at it is by considering the disconnections in agriculture especially with small marginal farmers who continue to be devastated and are in distress. As regards food security, the distress is caused by the demand side of economics, and not the lack of supply, and cannot be solved even with state interventions and programs. He raised concerns over poor health infrastructure which is concentrated in the urban areas, while rural areas are largely bypassed.

“The pandemic has bared our vulnerabilities and shaken our collective consciousness to focus on agriculture and rural economy, the fundamental and resilient engine of the Indian growth story. This must be bulletproofed with vigour for realising the goal of ‘doubling the farmers' income by 2022’ and towards #AtmaNirbharKrishi,” said Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI.

“Rather than universalisation of the scheme, it is important to have specifically targeted beneficiaries. Universalisation or increasing the coverage spreads the resources thin and is often not in the interest of the most vulnerable. There is a need to eliminate market inefficiencies and instil confidence and fair practices among various economic agents in the rural markets,” he said.

Others who participated in the webinar are Prof S Madheswaran, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore; Prof Sachidanand Sinha, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi; Prof Utpal Kumar De, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong; Dr Pradeep Kumar Mehta, Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon; Prof A Narayanamoorthy, Alagappa University, Karaikudi; Prof G Sridevi, Central University of Hyderabad; Prof Amalendu Jyotishi, Azim Premji University, Bangalore; Prof Balwant Singh Mehta, IMPRI, New Delhi.

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