Ripe papayas hung on each tree, with squishy rotting ones at the base of many. We sat on the mud in a big circle under the trees, shielded partially from the summer sun. The farm’s owner explained the details of his 75% loss on the crop during the lock-down. His market is Hyderabad. With no transportation across states available to the average person, he could only sell locally in the nearby towns of Surpur and Yadgir. The offtake was a tiny fraction of what it would have been in a big city. Prices kept dropping each day. Till it made no sense to spend on labour to pick the papayas and transport them across 20km to either town. So, he was letting the crop rot.
The man next to me looked more ragged than the other farmers there. He sat outside the circle on his haunches. I asked him to join the circle; he refused. The others narrated their own stories of helplessness. All of them grow fruits, vegetables or flowers. Each had problems and losses, like the papaya farmer. The man on the haunches didn’t speak, till we coaxed him to. He was not there to participate in the discussion, but was looking for work. He had returned from Bangalore ten days earlier, where he worked at a construction site. From being a provider of money to his family in the village, he had become dependent on them, which was fine by him. But they were running out of food other than rice, and needed money quickly. He went away disappointed as we left.
About 100m from the farm, where the mud track joined the road, another farmer stopped us. He was trying to sell us papaya, our car marking us as people with some resources. It didn’t matter that he had seen us leave a farm full of ripe and rotting papaya; what’s the harm in trying your luck when there isn’t much else to try?
All of last week I spent in northeast Karnataka, in the districts of Bellary, Yadgir, and Gulbarga. One of India’s first covid deaths was in Gulbarga. Now, Yadgir and Gulbarga districts are among three with the highest infection count in Karnataka. The population of each of these districts has increased by 8-12 % in the past few weeks, with migrants returning from across the country. They are expecting much more, as the influx continues unabated.
The ragged man next to me was one of them, and like him, most of these people were remitting money to their homes in the villages. That money flow has vanished, populations have surged, and local livelihoods are devastated. Estimates are that more than twice the current numbers would eventually be back. The local headcount could rise by about 20% in a matter of weeks.
Those who grow crops like paddy and lentils, which are not as perishable, are in no better state. That region grows both in plenty. With transportation and market disruptions, prices have fallen by 30-40%. Even at those prices, the demand is meagre. There is no place to store harvested crops and wait for prices to pick up. If farmers do find storage, they have no money to pay its rent. Livestock farmers are in a similar situation. Bank loans are beyond the grasp of farmer; they are not even allowed to enter banks, as we heard often in many places. These banks seem not to have even heard of the economic package announced by the Union government.
Weavers and other artisans are in worse condition, since their businesses have been completely shut. Almost all other small businesses, ranging from marriage party caterers and construction contractors to traditional drama and dance troupes, have come to a stand-still. Consequently, those employed by these businesses are jobless. Daily-wage labourers have had no work. Trans-genders, rag-pickers and sex-workers have zero income. The pandemics’ economic effect is amplified by pre-existing levels of disadvantage and social exclusion.
None of this is hearsay, I met these people in their own milieus. Similar pictures of severe economic distress and human misery are what we have from almost 400 districts, where we have ground-level presence; I will travel to many of those places soon. There won’t be any rapid improvement as the lockdown is eased. The crisis of today has a cascading effect. Working capital, resources for investment and other inputs available are all a fraction of what is needed for the next agrarian cycle, without even accounting from the looming debt trap, because of the last cycle’s loans.
Current projections of 1-4% growth in the rural farm sector in 2020-21, with a normal monsoon, seem as disconnected from reality as were the projections made by the same entities about 30 days ago of the overall Indian economy growing 1-4% this fiscal year. Some of our analysts and economists seem to have an inveterate faith in miracles.
The people and the economy are in deep distress, and the pandemic situation is swiftly worsening. I shall discuss this in detail in a later column. To act effectively, we need to listen to those at the stormfront and also in the storm. Dismissing them or attacking them as “prophets of doom” or “vultures” is a self-defeating tactic. The most important lesson from the Spanish Flu that crushed the world in 1918 was not an epidemiological one. It was to speak the truth and to have the courage to listen to the truth.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd