Women winnowing wheat in a Punjab village. Photo: AV Jakhar

Lessons from a pandemic to repurpose India’s agricultural policy

As the coronavirus crisis triggers a large-scale exodus of migrant agricultural workers from India’s food basket, it’s time the country diversified beyond labor- and water-intensive crops, say Dr Arabinda K Padhee and Prof Prabhu Pingali.

Women winnowing wheat in a Punjab village. Photo: AV Jakhar

Women winnowing wheat in a Punjab village. Photo: AV Jakhar

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Television footages of hundreds of migrant laborers walking for thousands of kilometres amidst India’s country-wide lockdown shook the collective conscience of a nation this April. In the absence of livelihoods, shelters and square meals, these laborers desperately wanting to get back to their home states portrayed the vulnerability of India’s massive unorganised agricultural workforce.

Agriculture, food and nutrition have come into sharp focus as a fallout of the COVID-19 crisis in India. Though the pandemic may not have caused serious disruption to the food system, thanks to good harvests in the previous crop seasons and sufficient buffers of rice and wheat, this is as good a time as any to reboot the country’s agricultural policy, already facing the traditional twin challenges of climate change and malnutrition.

India’s nine-week-long lockdown has raised serious concerns about the reduced access to nutritious food by those living in the fringes. Agricultural operations have remained out of the purview of the lockdown restrictions,which started on 25 March 2020. A couple of days into the lockdown, India declared a slew of welfare measures to protect vulnerable people, including smallholder farmers, agricultural laborers and migrant workers. However, to make food accessible and affordable to the poor, the government will need to step up its game many folds.

In the last couple of decades, climate change – extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, diminishing natural resources, land degradation and desertification – has impacted the agriculture sector profoundly. Add to that the burden of malnutrition. These challenges have now been exacerbated by the uncertainties around how the COVID-19 pandemic will finally play out.

Tweaking policy and investments

To transform the food systems in India following the COVID-19 pandemic, the government will urgently need to repurpose existing agricultural policies.

India’s policy regimes like the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the Public Distribution Systems (PDS), coupled with subsidies on irrigation, power, and farm inputs, are skewed in favor of staple crops like rice and wheat. Even though some climate-resilient and nutritious cereals like sorghum and millets get some support pricing, this seems ineffective as the policy is biased in favor of the “big two” staples.

In the past, policy watchers have suggested crop diversification to correct such legacy incentives. But how do you convince farmers to switch to a new production system without the promise of a stable income, however environmentally sustainable or nutrition-laden the proposed new regime may be? Farmers will make the transition only with suitable financial incentives, a strong value chain and new consumer behavior. COVID-19 may have opened up an opportunity to effect these changes as the country emerges out history’s biggest lockdown.

In fact, before the pandemic, India had a solid case for increasing investments in the animal husbandry sector, given the rising domestic demand for meat, dairy products and eggs.

In these uncertain times, it makes double the sense for smallholder farmers, landless poor and jobless agricultural laborers who have found their way back home to rear small ruminants, backyard poultry, and aquaculture for additional income.

The reverse migration of laborers from states like Haryana and Punjab during the current COVID pandemic offers a unique opportunity for these states to undo the historical wrong of supporting unsustainable, water- and labour-intensive cropping patterns. The good news amidst the crisis is that these states have started promoting non-paddy crops with lesser water footprints like maize and cotton for the forthcoming rainy season. This should also help bypass experienced labour-intensive farm operations such as transplanting paddy.

About the authors:

Dr Arabinda K Padhee
Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs,

Prof Prabhu Pingali
Member, Governing Board

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