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Saturday Interview | ‘Rural vaccination must for growth’

Besides heading the Food Corporation of India, he had been  secretary in the union Food Processing as well as the Agriculture and Farmers Welfare ministries.

Vijay Thakur | New Delhi |

Former Union agriculture secretary SIRAJ HUSSAIN devoted more than two decades of career in the Indian Administrative Service to agriculture and allied sectors. Besides heading the Food Corporation of India, he had been  secretary in the union Food Processing as well as the Agriculture and Farmers Welfare ministries.

He was among the officers in the Narendra Modi government to have worked on a roadmap for the agriculture sector.  A 1979 batch UP cadre IAS officer, Hussain had held various key positions in the UP government. Since his superannuation in January 2016, he has been working with ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations) as a visiting senior fellow.

He has also been engaged in research on various aspects of Indian agriculture and food processing and has authored several research papers on agriculture and the rural economy. In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, he shared his thoughts on the impact of the second coronavirus wave on the country’s agriculture sector.

Excerpts:

Q. The first Covid wave had little impact on the rural areas. In fact, the agriculture sector had helped the Indian economy.But the second wave of the pandemic adversely impacted villages and a large number of cases are being reported in villages. How do you see its impact on the Rabi and Kharif crops this year?

A. So far, most farmers have completed the harvesting of Rabi crops in most parts of the country. That’s why it might not have been affected by the second wave. As far as procurement is concerned, wheat has been marketed well at MSP. Rather it is more than last year.

But now what has happened, since the anaj mandis were closed from the middle of April in most of the states including MP, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, farmers were compelled to sell high quality wheat at MSP. For example, higher quality wheat like HI1544, which is better quality wheat than what is sold at MSP, is sold at MSP in MP. This causes concern.

Q. So you mean that farmers are losing money because they are selling superior quality wheat at a price lower than they could have got? Is this the only impact of the Covid second wave on the Rabi season?

A. It had little impact on the wheat crop, but a major portion of other Rabi crops like channa (grams) have not reached mandis yet. According to a rough estimate, 30-40 per cent of channa crops are still with farmers, and they are not able to sell them. So is the case with pulses crop. As a result, stock in the NCDEX godown is lower than last year. Unfortunately the procurement data of these crops are not made available on the NAFED website.

Q. As we see, this time Covid has penetrated into rural areas and we are hearing bad news from villages. What impact do you think it would have on the Kharif crops?

A. As far as Kharif crops are concerned, farmers are preparing nurseries for the Kharif crops. Since we are seeing a decline in the Covid-19 cases, we do not think sowing of Kharif would be impacted. However, farmers would need labour in the month of July for transplantation. We hope the situation will improve by then. Further, the kind of reverse migration (from urban areas to villages) we had witnessed during the first wave is much less than last year.

So in a nutshell, sowing would not be impacted and hopefully farmers with large land holdings might not face much loss in their cultivation income. However, the second wave would impact small and marginal farmers, though indirectly. A survey conducted by NABARD – Rural Financial Inclusion Survey – in 201617 had revealed that cultivation income of small and marginal farmers is much less than what they earn through wage-labour.

Another survey suggested that migratory labourers send one third to half of their income back to villages. The loss of wage labour, and loss of remittances from migratory workforce to villages will certainly hit the rural economy. It seems people in rural areas will have little money to spend this year and we might see a decline in demand in rural areas mainly from the industries engaged in the fast moving capital goods (FMCG) sector. Even the construction sector in rural areas has been affected.

Q. But the same thing had happened last year. Migratory labourers lost their jobs, and there was a decline in remittances to villages by the migratory workforce. How is it different from last year?

A. Yes, this had happened last year as well. But that time they had a little reserves, this time the second wave came well before they could recover from the first wave. Moreover, last time their medical expenditure was almost negligible, now they do not know how much they will have to spend on medical expenses since Covid-19 has penetrated rural India. First, the health infrastructure in rural India is inadequate. Secondly, poor villagers will lose what they have when they go to hospitals in urban areas.

Q. Which sector in rural areas is most affected?

A. The most affected is the horticulture sector. Fruits and vegetables are highly perishable items and its producers are the worst hit. Unlike wheat or pulses, it has little shelf life. Farmers are not getting price for their crop due to April and May lockdowns. Either it is going to waste in the fields or they are not getting the price it deserves.

Q. What should the Government of India or state governments do to help farmers? It is already helping small and marginal farmers by offering Kisan Samman Nidhi, subsidised fertiliser,and guaranteed labour through MGNREGA.

A. If the government really wants to help farmers, it should ensure people in rural India are vaccinated in time. In urban areas we have private hospitals and better health infrastructure where vaccines are available and those who can afford can get themselves vaccinated. But in rural India there is no private network of health infrastructure. So the priority of the state and Central governments should be to vaccinate rural India. Save villages to save India from the Covid-19 pandemic.