Centre uses virus outbreak to reform farmers’ markets

By allowing all agricultural and related activities, including fisheries, plantation and animal husbandry, from 20 April, and launching farm sector reforms, India is trying to sequester its rural population from the fallout of covid-19.

The Union home ministry order issued on Wednesday allowed “all agricultural and horticultural activities to remain fully functional” as the harvesting season for winter crops sets in and mandis, or farmers’ markets, need to be open for the sale of the crop.

The order also reflected the Centre’s strategy of using the crisis to initiate reforms, a case in point being the reforming of the agricultural produce market committees (APMCs).

It allows mandis operated by APMCs, or satellite mandis to resume functioning on 20 April. It also allowed states, Union territories, or the industry to buy directly from farmers or Fruit Products Order (FPO) cooperatives. It said states and Union territories may promote decentralized marketing and procure at the village level.

“Mandis operated by the Agriculture Produce Market Committee or as notified by the State/ UT government (e.ga. satellite mandis). Direct marketing operations by the State/UT government or by industry, directly from farmers/group of farmers, FPO’s co-operatives etc. States/ UTs may promote decentralized marketing and procurement at village level,” the order said.

“Linking farmers to the markets is key because the government does not procure vegetables, oil seeds or milk. Allowing markets to function is important. You also need steps to help the urban poor,” said N.C. Saxena, a former rural development secretary.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested specific measures for agriculture and allied sectors to facilitate sale of farm produce. He had also said that direct marketing for farm produce can be incentivized to prevent crowding in mandis, for which model APMC laws should be reformed. Such steps will also help farmers sell products at their doorstep.

The Centre is trying to expedite cash transfers into the rural economy by leveraging the direct benefit transfer model amid the lockdown, which has hit the rural poor and migrant labourers the hardest.

Given the exodus of millions of labourers from cities to villages, the situation in India’s hinterlands warrants all possible help as farm gate prices have collapsed amid a cash crunch. Worse, the unemployment rate in rural India surged from 8.29% for the week ended 22 March to 20.29% on 29 March and 20.21% on 5 April, data by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy showed.

Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story.

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