Food prices surge, farm sector suffers as supply and transportation hit amid Covid-19

Farmers are dumping produce, only key staples available in steady supply during the outbreak

food supply

The prices of key staples have surged nearly three times from a month ago because of the disruption of the supply chain due to the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 infection, reported Hindustan Times.

Market data from the consumer affairs ministry and agriculture produce markets (APMCs) reviewed by the publication shows that there are three main factors are sending food prices to sky high levels.


The first reason is that the arrival of farm commodities in APMC markets have plunged sharply, with commodities falling to almost 60 percent in some markets from a month ago. The second reason is that land transportation have gone up sharply due to the difficulty to cross interstate boundaries even though they have exemptions from the lockdown. The third reason is that the quarantine measures put in place have resulted in labour shortages, thereby affecting the loading, unloading and sorting of commodities.

A report by the International Labour Organization too on April 8 said that the lockdown could potentially shatter the incomes of 400 million marginalized Indians. An economist explained that restrictions in supply and regulations in movement have caused a spike in food prices. And soon supply shocks could turn into demand shocks. An economist with the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, Himanshu, said, “Loss of income will lead to a drop in demand for food in the coming months. A possible decline in food consumption could result in malnutrition too.”

However, prices of cereals, such as wheat and rice are steady due to adequate supply from state-run granaries.

Coordination mishaps between Centre and States lead to wastage

It is reported that there has been no drop in winter crop production. It is instead that state and federal officials who have failed to coordinate supplies and ensure deliveries at fair prices and at the right time. It has been said that states are regulating supplies only with selected agents who are being given passes to deliver commodities, to reduce crowding and maintain social distancing.

“The home ministry’s orders have not percolated to the ground level even though operators want their vehicles to move. Trucks are still being stopped at various state borders,” Kultaran Singh Atwal, president of the lobby group, All-India Motor Transport Congress, said.

Atwal said once trucks dump their consignments, they are then stuck as state authorities don’t allow them to ply back empty. This problem of one-way traffic needs immediate resolution and has pushed up road transport costs by at least 15%, he said.

Farmers are unable to harvest crops too as there is no labour available, reported Anadolu Agency. Plucked vegetables too are lying unused in various states, shattering hopes of profits for farmers. Aakash Patel, a farmer from Sagar district of Central Madhya Pradesh said, “We cannot sell vegetables due to the lockdown. No means of transport is available to take them to the wholesale markets. We pluck cabbage, cauliflower, and other vegetables but are forced to feed them to cattle.”

Prices surge, supplies at APMCs drop

And idea of the supply crunch is represented by the prices of onions and vegetables which have been gathered in a rather novel way on directions of the National Statistics Office – through telephonic inquiries, in light of field agents being unable to go on ground.

From April 1 – 6, for instance, Andhra Pradesh’s Mulakalacheruvu APMC market, a tomato hub, received just 60 tonnes of tomato that went for a modal price of Rs 550 a quintal (100 kg each) or Rs 5.5 a kg, according to official data.

Data from the National Horticulture Research and Development Foundation showed that in Lasalgaon, Asia’s biggest onion market located in Nashik, arrivals have dropped by 80 percent from until a month ago.

While in the first week of March, onion arrivals in Lasalgaon were 73,955 quintals, the first week of April saw an 83 percent drop with only 11, 878 quintals coming in. The average retail price of onions in Chandigarh and Guwahati were Rs 40 and Rs 50 respectively, double their usual rates.

 Though on April 8, the Union Ministry asked states to invoke provisions of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, which included the capping of edible items, the state hasn’t put a cap on prices of food staples yet.

Farmers are dumping produce due to being unable to source buyers. “My neighbour had to dump one tonne of chillies and two tonnes of chickpeas because there were no buyers at the mandi,” Amra Ram, a leader of the All India Kisan Sabha, said over the phone from Rajasthan’s Sikar APMC.

Assam reiterates India’s plight

In Assam, where the NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) is involved in activism in the fields of citizenship rights and forest rights among other causes, has reports from ground zero that show that the food crisis is more of a dire risk than the coronavirus. CJP has taken up exclusive relief work in Assam, reaching the needy with ration imperative for sustenance during the lockdown. CJP volunteers have been active in the various villages of Lower Assam especially those in the Chirang, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar, Barapeta and other districts.

Farms of tomatoes have been drying up due to the farmers not being allowed to care for their produce during the lockdown. In many villages where tomatoes grow, they are now seen withering away due to the shutdown of water supply.

Abdul Hamid, a small, marginalised farmer from the Hawriapet village under Gosaigaon police station in Kokrajhar district, told CJP, “I cultivated cucumber on 1 bigha of land this year. As the time was ripe to sell this cucumber, the lock down was suddenly declared. If we can’t sell vegetables, what we will eat? Will the government help us?”

CJP reports that the sale of vegetables in large quantities has been unilaterally shut down for the past twenty days. The absence of a supply chain has led to the waste of ripe vegetables. Faced with the turbulence caused by the countrywide lock down, these farmers face a sudden dip in the prices of corn. What will this mean for their sustenance?

Bishnupur in Chirang district, on which Guwahati is dependent for 90 percent of its demands of lemon, is also hit due to the shutdown. Revenues have taken a hit. Though lemons have been harvested, the sudden shut down in communications had ruptured the supply chain. Small portions are being sold:  while the price was Rs 1200 per bag before the lock down, this has dropped to Rs 800 per bag, which means a loss of Rs 400 per bag.

The most heart wrenching sight witnessed by the CJP team was to see, at many homes of farmers, cultivator families boiling brinjals, cauliflower and feeding these to the cows! In the small urban centres, with the acute rise in price of vegetables and other essential food items, the working poor people are compelled to eat rice only with salt.

Another farmer, Abdul Aziz, told CJP team that the chilli he cultivated on three bighas of land is now sitting in the godown as there is no way to sell it because of the disrupted supply chain. In Bongaigon too, farmers are sitting stranded with large quantities of watermelon.

Milk producers and sellers are also in dire straits. In another part of Bongaigaon district, the Kirtanpara area, people earn their livelihoods on two kinds of occupation. The first is agriculture and the second is cheese and curd production from the fresh cow milk, which is then sold in different cities. With the lock down, farmers’ crops are being destroyed, and accumulation of curd and cheese is causing a wasteful and desperate situation for these producers.

Particularly for those who sell milk in the sweet shops, the situation is acute as shops are shut due to the lock down. No alternative arrangements have been made by the government to sell milk at this time of crisis.

CJP has received testimonies of unspeakable hardship with the poorest battling against hunger and searching for food, rather that surviving the Covid-19 pandemic. Food intake has been reduced to days long hunger or just a single meal in a day. The state of Assam is in a state of anarchy and faces worse in the days ahead.

When CJP goes to homes, ensuring safety protocol and working with the regulations of the administration, reaching widows, orphans, children and all others, it asks, “How are you, farmer?”

The only answer it hears, “Our war is against hunger, much more than Corona.”

Endnote: CJP’s community volunteer, Nanda Ghosh has authored the ground report on Assam which may be read here



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