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Indian farmers fear for survival despite lockdown's relaxation

World's largest rural population must now piece supply chains back together

India's government has partially relaxed its nationwide lockdown, especially in rural areas, but farmers find themselves with no workers and severed from supply chains. (Photo by Harshita Rathore)

BANGALORE/SOTAI/DARJEELING -- India's government on Monday partially relaxed its lockdown in rural areas, allowing farmers to return to fields neglected for almost four weeks and giving a wisp of hope to the world's largest rural population, one that has suffered particular hardship under the stringent quarantine.

But the damage has been done. India's agricultural supply-chain has been severed, and farmers will have difficulty finding extra hands, materials and, eventually, buyers.

In reality, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed another heavy burden on the vast country's farmers: Revive the rural economy.

"Farmers will lose about 50% of their crop due to the delay in getting back our laborers," said Subhash Chand, a wheat farmer in Sotai village, in the northern state of Haryana, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. "If the weather turns bad, then the losses could be much bigger."

Chand usually relies on migrant workers for harvesting, but "all my laborers have gone back to their homes," he said, visibly angry.

Within the first few days of the nationwide lockdown, which began on March 25, most of the country's daily wage earners, including those who work the land, walked hundreds of kilometers to reach their hometowns.

Subhash Chand, his wife, mother, uncle and aunt have been working 10 hours a day for 15 days now but have made little headway. (Photo by Harshita Rathore)

"My whole family is having to cut the crop," Chand said. "We have been toiling for 10 hours every day for the past 15 days, and yet we have been able to finish only 10% of the harvest."

Chand, who was sipping tea during an evening break with his wife, mother, uncle and aunt, allowed himself a sigh at the thought.

The family appeared exhausted.

Modi's government, on Wednesday announced that farming, road construction, e-commerce and the IT industry would be allowed to resume after April 20.

But in the Covid-19 era, economies do not jump back to speed at the snap of a government's fingers. In China, businesses that have reopened are finding that their customers are far from eager to visit.

India's workers are likely to feel a similar apprehension, said Zafar, a caretaker at a wheat farm in Haryana. And besides, he added, "allowing farm activities means little, given that all public transport remains suspended."

With limited access to wholesale markets, farmers have to keep their harvests in the field. This sacrifices their wheat stubble to the wind before it can be sold as fodder.

According to a World Bank database, India had a rural population of 892 million in 2018. That was hundreds of millions more than No. 2 China, at 569 million, and No. 3 Pakistan, at 134 million. Including direct and indirect employment, hundreds of millions of Indians make a living in agriculture, but most lack formal contracts with employers.

It could take, at least, weeks for the farmhands to return.

The situation regarding the severed supply chains is more dire still. "It will take four to six months for the industry to revive from the day the [entire] lockdown ends," said K Jagdeesh, who raises silkworms in a small town next to Bangalore, in India's southern state of Karnataka.

Jagdeesh has incurred 5.8 million rupees ($76,000) in losses and has had to slash his operation, which caters to 25,000 farmers, by 50%.

India is the world's second largest silk producer, after China. The industry provides 9.1 million jobs, and the state of Karnataka contributes nearly one third of India's total production. Sericulture operations like Jagdeesh's are part of a longer chain that starts with egg producers and goes to small silkworm rearers, to cocoon farmers, to reelers, to dyers, to weavers, to merchants and finally to customers. Each link impacts every other.

But never has the chain been so heavily damaged. Some silkworm egg producers and silkworm rearing centers have temporarily shut down. As a result, "there will be a scarcity of eggs and silk cocoons in the market," Jagdeesh said.

Sunil Kumar CV, whose family has been in the silk trade since the 1970s, harbors similar concerns. "We need capital to run reeling machines and to buy cocoons from farmers," he said. "If we are not able to sell silk to weavers, from where will we get capital?

India's silk industry is the world's second largest, but the coronavirus and, more specifically, the measures taken to combat it, have left it in tatters. (Photo by Tamanna Naseer)

"We [need to] transport silk to [the neighboring states of] Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Due to the lockdown, not even 1 kg of silk could be transported."

Modi on April 14 extended the nationwide lockdown to May 3, as the number of new Covid-19 cases showed no sign of letting up. On Monday, the government confirmed 1,553 more cases, compared with the 1,334 it reported the previous morning, its biggest 24-hour spike. The country's total number of cases has climbed to 17,265, and India has suffered 543 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The lockdown has also hurt one of Indian agriculture's few foreign currency earners, the tea plantation.

"This [situation] will take us into the ICU [intensive care unit]," said AK Lohia, chairman of the Chamong group, which owns 13 tea estates in Darjeeling, in India's north. The fifth-generation tea planter has lost more than 50% of the season's first leaves and more than 20% of its annual revenue already.

India's tea plantations have their own regulations, apart from the rest of the agriculture sector. The sector's minimum wage, for example, is generally lower than elsewhere.

Even during the lockdown, tea plantations were authorized to keep working, but with 25% of their labor forces. "Right now, [the arrangement] is helping us from incurring further damage," Lohia said. "It may also help us recover some tea."

But, Lohia added, the lockdown "has disturbed the entire crop cycle, and experts have said second flush tea in some areas will also get affected."

"First flush" refers to the first leaves picked in spring, after the winter dormancy. Loved for their delicate flavors, these leaves fetch premium prices in overseas luxury tea markets. They are typically plucked from mid-March to mid-April.

Darjeeling tea estates produce about 8 million kg of tea a year, most of which is exported. They now face an unprecedented loss of premium first flush tea, which amounts to 20% of annual production and 35% to 40% of revenue. "The first flush tea is almost lost," said Binod Mohan, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association. "In fact, the top quality first flush teas, which fetch the highest prices, are completely gone. The losses accrued will run to the tune of [$19.7 million]."

Mohan wasn't finished. "We really need some kind of a support from the government," he said, "without which there is no way we will be able to survive."

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