How COVID-19 lockdown is forcing Assam farmers to dump harvest
Darrang: Kharupetia in Assam’s Darrang district, one of the biggest vegetable markets of the region which usually thrums with farmers and traders, now wears a deserted look due to the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown. In the absence of transportation and restricted movement of traders, tonnes of vegetables are going to waste. This has affected the farmers the most as the lockdown was announced in the middle of harvest season forcing them to stay indoors.
No buyers for vegetables
Fifty-five-year-old Abdul Ajit, a farmer in Bhutpukhuri village in Kharupetia, is troubled since majority of his crops have been destroyed. Ajit had grown pumpkins, bitter gourds, ridge gourds and chillies in around seven bighas of land. Most of his crops are now rotting in the fields since he did not get any buyer.
“I and most of the people in my village live on farming. I could not sell anything since most of the vegetables have rotten. Altogether I had grown crops in five to seven bighas of land and almost all of them have been destroyed. Since I could not sell them, I either had to throw all the ridge gourds away or feed them to cows. Last year, I could manage to sell all the vegetables. With the money, I built my house, paid off all my debts. I had no idea that such will be the situation this time,” Ajit said.
Similar situations are also being faced by farmers in Kalaigaon, a few kilometres from Bhutpukhuri. Raham Ali’s crops were destroyed since he could not go out to spray pesticides due to the lockdown. In order to minimise the losses Ali tried to sell some of his crops in nearby villages. He even settled to sell eggplants grown in his far for Rs 2 per kilogram which is otherwise being sold at Rs 20 to 30 per kilogram in cities.
“I am trying to sell the vegetables little by little for around Re 1 to Rs 2 per kilogram. Although people from the village have bought some of it, they only take a handful, as per their requirement. Even they have vegetables rotting in the fields,” Ali said.
The debt trap
Although farmers are desperately trying to sell whatever they can, they have not been able to salvage most of it. Animals feeding on heaps of vegetables have become a common sight in villages of Kharupetia.
This has left farmers worried about saving their lands as most farmers borrow money from either banks or private money lenders to plant crops. The amount varies from Rs 30,000 to few lakhs and attracts an interest rate of around 10%. The amount is later paid off by selling their harvest. However, the lockdown has created an unlikely situation.
“In order to grow the vegetables, I had taken a loan of Rs 3 lakh and with that I had planted brinjals in five bighas of land, luffa on two bighas and tomatoes in the remaining piece of land. Since I could not sell any of it, I have no other option but to sell off my land in order to pay the lenders,” Ali mentioned.
Amijul Haque, 32, had borrowed around Rs 31,000 from a co-operative bank. While others have the option of selling some parts of their land, Haque is worried about paying his monthly installments since he has been farming on land leased out to him.
“I had borrowed the loan of Rs 31,576 and from whatever I earn, I have to pay around Rs 1,700 every month. But due to lockdown I have not been able to pay the installments. I don’t even have enough for myself. Neither do we get any subsidy nor any relief. We have to struggle to get through our days. Since the crops have been destroyed, it has become very difficult to survive,” Haque said.
Farmers are now expecting relief measures from the government in order to ease their struggle. In order to grow new crops, the farmers will have to wait for another two to three months. However, most of them will be cultivating rice. Due to the texture of soil, vegetable farming is the only feasible form of cultivation till summer. However, the process involving getting rid of the present crops to plating new seeds will consume a period of around three months.
Issues such as transportation, storage of integrated pack houses and unavailability of functioning cold-storage remained a hurdle in providing a helping hand to the farmers. This also resulted in extending the gap between the farmers and traders.
Speaking to EastMojo, Manoj Das, managing director, North Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation Limited, said that in a situation like this there is need of a support system to bridge the gap between the farmers and the market.
“Some support system is always required from the government to help these farmers. So infrastructure support such as cold-storage and integrated pack houses are the things that government should look into. Since everything happened all of a sudden, nobody could really plan and put a system in place. Every problem has a solution so we have to find where the solution is,” Das added.
However, experts claim that there is still a ray of hope to narrow down the losses and provide some relief to the farmers. Dr Manjura Mohan Kalita, former director, Department of Agriculture & Horticulture, Assam says that government has to procuring the remaining goods directly from farmers.
“This is the main season for horticulture crops and vegetables. If this season goes to waste, which has already happened but we can restore some part of it by buying directly from the farmers’ fields. If the government provides some relief to transport for the vehicles to directly reach the farmers, then not just the farmers will get some relief, the consumers will also get fresh vegetables at their doorstep. Secondly, there is a need of facilities like cold-storage in Assam. Although there are around 33 cold-storages, not all of them are functioning,” Kalita said.
Meanwhile, in various initiatives attempts are being made by the government through schemes such as PM-KISAN and Jan Dhan to provide relief to villagers and farmers. However, claims have also been made that many have not been able to avail the benefits. Farmers are also of the opinion that that the amount doesn’t provide any solution for their destroyed crops.
The virus has not only taken a toll on human life but also made its impact in the economy. Soon after the lockdown is removed all eyes will be on the state and the Central government on relief measures to be provided to the sufferers.