Things to do, food for thought

Written by Vijay Sardana

Published: March 30, 2020 12:36:47 am

During lockdowns, such as the present one, it is relatively easy to shut factories, IT parks, hotels, malls and multiplexes. But it is not so with agriculture and animal husbandry; these sectors will continue to produce.

The rabi crop is almost ready for harvesting. In some cases — mustard, chana, and even wheat in Madhya Pradesh — farmers have already harvested the crop and are waiting to transport them to the mandis. The country produces around 52 crore litres of milk daily. There are also 80 crore-odd live poultry, both broilers and layers, at any given time, supplying meat and eggs to consumers. These birds and animals, in turn, support the livelihoods of poultry and dairy farmers, as well as those producing maize, soyabean, mustard, groundnut, cotton and other coarse grains that are ingredients for livestock feed.

During lockdowns, such as the present one, it is relatively easy to shut factories, IT parks, hotels, malls and multiplexes. But it is not so with agriculture and animal husbandry; these sectors will continue to produce. You cannot plug the udders of cows even if they are at home! It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that farmers are able to keep their animals alive and market the crop that has been, or will be, harvested during the lockdown period. We need an immediate action plan to manage our agriculture and livestock sectors in the interest of both producers and consumers.

The first thing is to ensure free movement of farm produce, livestock feed and veterinary medicines. It is obvious that not all issues can be addressed overnight. But the minimum the government can do is to ensure ground-level implementation of already-taken decisions. Many essential services, for instance, were kept out of the purview of the lockdown. Food, feed and agricultural inputs have been specifically notified as essential services. But there are several problems at the level of implementation that are coming to notice. The Centre has issued various directives/notifications, many of them brief and general in nature. Based on these, the chief secretaries of states have issued circulars to their respective district administrations. Many of these have either not reached the local authorities and police personnel or are not clearly worded. As a result, the smooth movement of essential items has been affected.

There are also reports of conflict between the police and citizens, including people involved in the transportation and delivery of food as well as inputs to farms (seed, cattle and poultry feed, fertiliser and crop protection chemicals) and processing units (consumables, packaging materials, labels, etc).

The Centre must issue a single notification relating to food items in a standard format and uniform language so that all ambiguities are removed. This needs to be finalised after consultations with the stakeholders and the state governments can release it to officials working at the grass roots. The focus should be to address the problems arising from restrictions on the transport — between and within states — of agri-produce and inputs related to them.

Another suggestion is that the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) be invoked for the delivery of all essential services relating to food to prevent disruption of supplies. Right now, many are unable to run their dairies or mills to the necessary capacity because of staff shortage, an outcome of the lockdown. Companies that are in a position to provide food and accommodation, and within factory premises, should be given the powers to deploy the minimum necessary staff for production. These workers should be restricted from travelling outside the factory compounds. Special passes can be issued by the local police station for drivers and people involved in the movement of essential goods.

There is another issue: What will happen after the lockdown ends? Many plants are now shut or working at low capacity utilisation. Consumption by hotels and other institutions, too, is low. Nor is any export or import happening. But once the lockdown ends, there will be a rush to procure raw material, trucks and rail rakes.

The government must start planning now to prevent post-lockdown chaos, especially profiteering in the event of shortages. Smooth recovery from the lockdown is as important as managing supplies during the lockdown. Here are a few suggestions to ensure that the common man does not have to suffer hardships during and after the lockdown:

First, place all food items, agri-inputs, packaging material and transport services under ESMA for a six-month period to prevent profiteering. The MRP that was applicable in February should remain till October. In the case of farm produce, it helps that we are looking at a bumper crop, which makes it all the more necessary to ensure its smooth marketing.

Second, suspend APMC (agricultural produce market committee) laws for the next six months. Traders with APMC licence are bound to act as cartels during rush hour, which will hurt both farmers and consumers. Any rise in inflation — not justified given the current surplus produce — will hurt the government’s image, even if it has successfully controlled the novel coronavirus.

Third, ESMA should apply to all utilities and transport services. State governments can make exemptions on a case to case basis: These exemptions should be subject to public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act. The government should announce the above measures well in advance. We need to prepare for crises, both current and prospective, during and after the lockdown.

The writer is a food technologist and member of Commodities Derivatives Advisory Committee, SEBI

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