Exactly a month had passed since Indian Prime Minister announced a national lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak. We wanted to check how farmers known to us through our field studies in Karnataka are doing. Many of them have at least one family member doing wage labour in some far away city. With the COVID-19 crisis around, would they have come back as usual in the month of March, for Ugadi celebrations? Tyranny faced by migrants in transit was being reported from all over India. Yadgir being one of the most backward districts of the state, our concern about farmers in this semiarid landscape was well-justified.
Usually, it was the vagaries of prices or climate that made farming in this district risky. The challenge posed by lockdown and the virus is new. It is new also because everyone – in cities and villages, old and young, farmers and others, small and large holders, NGOs and government agencies, private and public enterprises, retail and wholesale dealers – faced it. For a change, globalisation appeared quite egalitarian, albeit in the eyes of the virus. From New York to Yadgir, everywhere it was the same virus. But the felt impacts of the pandemic varied between urban and rural areas, between economic classes, age groups and also depending on morbidity conditions.
During a study in 2016 -17, we had repeated interviews with about 40 selected farmers in Yadgir district. We got in touch with 10 of them over the phone. After initial conversations reminding our past visits and interactions, we confirmed the readiness and availability of eight of them for two-three telephonic chats. Four of them were small farmers (<5 acres), two medium farmers (5 – 10 acres) and two were large farmers (>10 acres). We refreshed our memory of their fields and families from the database and pictures from 2017. As we were already familiar with them it was easy to strike engaging conversations.
Small holders had a more diverse cropping pattern, mostly targeting food needs of the family. Among the food crops, bajra, jowar, green gram and other pulses were most common. Medium farmers had a mix of food and commercial crops and the two large farmers in the sample raised crops exclusively for the market- paddy, cotton and red gram. It was the third consecutive cropping season in despair for them. Furious monsoon of 2019 had impacted their kharif crop and the following rabi crop that was yet to be harvested when virus and lockdown inflicted their impact.
Lockdown experience varied among the holdings. Below we compare two representative cases, to bring out this difference. All small farmers had more or less similar experience and distinct from others. Impact on medium holdings tended towards that of the large ones.
Small and large farmers during COVID-19
Basavaraju, a 52-year-old Dalit farmer has 4 acres of land of which one acre is irrigated. He had grown bajra, jowar, green gram, red gram and cotton in the last cropping cycle. The family had harvested the food crops before the lockdown. Sacks loaded with the grains are ready for home storage and for the market. Bajra, jowar and varieties of pulses ensured a balanced diet for the family, even during the lockdown. The surplus after keeping enough for one whole year’s consumption goes to the market. In normal times the surplus will be transported 45 km away to the mandi near Yadgir town. This year Basavaraju sold it in the local market for a lesser price. Yet, he was glad that he did not stock the produce longer waiting for transport as that would have prolonged the uncertainties.
Basavaraju also works as a mason during summers – a lean period for farming activities, usually. This earns him Rs 600 per day for 3 or 4 days per week. As construction work halted completely during lockdown, this income ceased for three weeks. But he resumed the masonry work after the lockdown, for fewer days though. Basavaraju’s son - a college student, was at home due to closure of all educational institutions. He also started working in the construction sites. Together they could soon compensate for the wage days lost. The family also availed the national rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGA) whenever its work schedule didn’t clash with farming and mason work. Between construction labour and NREGA, the father-son duo managed to repay part of the crop loan pending since last year.
Unlike Basavaraju, 55-year-old Gururaju is a large holder. He had 15 acres of irrigated paddy and 10 acres of cotton this year. Although his assets looked impressive, problems were multifold. Gururaju had harvested 5 acres of paddy almost two months before the lockdown and the remaining 10 acres was ready for harvest when the lockdown was announced. Paddy fields of that scale required machines for harvest and trucks for transporting produce. Both were not available even after offering to pay above normal charges. His regular workers were ready to come, but were unable to get transport. We asked about the migrant villagers who had come back from the cities. According to Gururaju, they are not good at this work. Thus, Gururaju’s paddy crop was standing in the field for another month till he sold it at APMC for a price lower by Rs 200 than the previous harvest two months ago.
Harvested paddy two months ago was sold to a mill with an agreement to transfer the payment in two weeks’ time. Gururaju hadn’t received anything from the mill and was skeptical of getting it anytime soon. He was unable to pay the instalment against the loan taken, or wages pending to be paid for harvest. We indicated the three months’ moratorium declared by banks for loan repayment. But he wasn’t sure if he will be able to pay anything in three months’ time. Since farming was the only source of income, it was difficult for him to meet even day-to-day expenses of all family members. They are not used to doing manual labour for wages. Gururaju criticized the government and its policies for all his troubles. With no food crops grown and financial crunch, this 25-acre owning family relied on PDS for the past two months.
Resilient family farms
Food wasn’t an issue for all the 10 farmers we conversed with over a period of three weeks. Public distribution system and special relief package provided an essential ration of rice and dal. But a balanced diet crucial during the viral pandemic was accessible only to those who raised food crops, mostly small holders. Relatively speaking, small farms appeared to be financially secure, thanks to their off and non-farm wage labour. Crop diversity, low investment farming that met nutritional needs of the family and a diverse livelihood basket worked in their favor.
This questions the call for scaling up farming with irrigation and mono-cropping to impart resilience in farming, even if farm incomes can double at times. And resilience is what a farmer needs when ecological and economic crises loom large. If agriculture is heavily dependent on capital and external resources including labour, vulnerability is certain. Food and agro-ecology oriented integrated systems of family farms and local marketing was complemented well by part-time non-farm engagement. This helped them tide over the shock comfortably, compared to the medium and large farms raising only commercial crops, targeting distant demand and with no other major source of income.
Seema Purushothaman is a professor at Azim Premji University and Sheetal Patil is researcher at Azim Premji University.
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