View from India: Farmers sow seeds for recovery as pandemic batters economy

Economic data has revealed that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has plummeted due to the pandemic.

According to reports, the Q1 GDP (April-June) for the current fiscal year shrank by 23.9 per cent, compared to growth of 3.1 per cent in the previous quarter (January-March). Although this has seen a steep decline across many industries, agriculture is the one sector that has managed to survive.

Farmers have put their best foot forward to sustain themselves as the pandemic looms large. Growth drivers include distributed rainfall, government interventions and better minimum support prices (MSP) for crops. MSP helps raise productivity and overall grain production to meet the demand.

“Our farmers have proven their mettle. This time round in our country, the sowing of kharif crops has increased by 7 per cent compared to that of last year. The sowing of paddy has increased by approximately 10 per cent; pulses close to 5 per cent; coarse cereals almost 3 per cent; oilseeds around 13 per cent, and cotton nearly 3 per cent,” said Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi over the weekend during the radio broadcast 'Mann Ki Baat.' Kharif crops or autumn crops are domesticated plants such as rice that are cultivated and harvested in India during the summer season, which lasts from June to November, depending on the area. The kharif season varies depending on the crop and location.

Modi has urged the farmers of the country to be self-reliant. The farmers not only supply the food grains for the citizens of India but are also in a position to provide food grains to other countries that are in need. “Though this is our strength, the strength of self-reliance in agriculture is important. Value addition is also necessary in this sector. Our farm sector needs to evolve in line with the requirements of world,” Modi said previously, when addressing the nation on 15 August, India's Independence Day.

The Government of India (GoI) aims to double the farmers' income. Avenues like bee farming, fisheries and poultry should be made available to improve the earnings of the farmers. Various measures are being implemented to reduce the cost of farming. With some out-of-box thinking the farmer, who is a food producer, can become an energy producer. The solution lies in replacing the diesel pump with a solar pump, which lowers the carbon footprint.

Modernisation of the farming sector is also key. Infrastructure support will be provided for food processing and food packaging. The GoI has sanctioned Rs 1,00,000 crore towards the development of agriculture infrastructure during the pandemic. The budgetary allocation is to enable farmers to get better prices for their produce and sell them in foreign markets.

With agrarian activities on the rise, tractor sales have also increased with robust growth over the last few months. The volume of sales of tractors is high, followed by two-wheelers and small commercial vehicles.

Though Covid-19 has been an economic drain across industries, it has also revealed previously hidden opportunities for rural women. Women of many agricultural households have managed to earn their livelihood by joining self-help groups (SHGs).

As indicated on the Ministry of Rural Development’s website, face-mask production was initiated by the members of many self-help groups (SHGs), beginning in April. This is across 24 States covering 399 Districts of the country under the Ministry of Rural Development’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).

SHGs are promoted by Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission under the Ministry of Rural Development. Trained through video conferencing, they have been the backbone of rural India in Covid times. SHG members have emerged as community warriors by contributing in every possible way to contain the spread of Covid-19. When the initiative began in April, it brought together approximately 690 lakh women members of around 63 lakh SHGs. These numbers continue to grow just as the livelihood of these women also grows.

Those who are not into farming or represent SHGs are backed by supportive measures from the government. This is a silver lining in rural regions. A case in point is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the GoI’s flagship employment scheme.  

The CRISIL August 2020 research, 'Covid-19 Corollaries on MGNREGA', indicates that the average income per person, per month, under the MGNREGA 2005 doubled to Rs 1,000 in the first four months of this fiscal year, compared with Rs 509 in the previous fiscal period. The April-July period has seen 25 per cent greater work execution (in terms of person days) under the scheme - a clear indicator of the rise in rural income.

Since the pandemic has pushed urban labourers back into their villages, the government has decided to give greater thrust to MGNREGA. The scheme has the mandate of providing at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer for unskilled manual work. This has been a key mechanism of providing employment to the rural labour force.

Modi continues to stress the need for making India self-reliant, or Aatma Nirbhar. It is even more relevant in times of the pandemic. Many youngsters from tier cities have realised this as the vision of self-reliance has clicked with them. “At the beginning of August 2020, an app innovation challenge was put before the youth of the country,” Modi said. There were around 7,000 entries for the contest, called the 'AatmaNirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge'. Youngsters from tier II and tier III cities were in the news as they constituted nearly two-thirds of the participants. Many of them have come up with innovative ideas, which can be fine-tuned to become solutions of the future.

Some of the noteworthy apps include the 'KutukiKids Learning' app. This interactive app uses songs and narrates stories for children to help them learn science and maths. The 'Ask Sarkar' app gives information on government schemes, delivered by chat bots through text, audio and video. 'Ku KOO ku', a micro-blogging platform, enables people to share their opinion and interact with an online audience in their mother tongue using text, video or audio.

Innovation is a hot topic among the young. Many of them have come forward with apps that range from business apps to the gaming ones for leisure seekers. Modi urged people to develop computer games based on the country’s heritage, culture and history.

Let’s hope innovative ideas translate into sustainable ones and help industries recover and get back on track.

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