Indian agriculture sector achieved record foodgrain production and registered positive growth despite the coronavirus pandemic but the massive farmers’ protest at the borders of the national capital against the new farm laws overshadowed its remarkable performance last year.
Notwithstanding the cold weather and pandemic concerns, the protest by thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, started in late November and is continuing even as the government and around 40 farmer unions have so far held as many as six rounds of formal discussions to break the deadlock.
Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who is leading the negotiations with the unions, is still hopeful of finding solution, although the government has refused point blank to repeal the Farm Bills. Tomar said he expects the new year to herald new solutions to end the crisis. Farmers are equally adamant about repeal of the three farm bills.
In the last meeting between the government and the unions, both sides reached at a consensus regarding concerns about the proposed electricity amendment bill and the ordinance on air pollution that penalises farmers for stubble burning.
The government has promised to decriminalise stubble burning by farmers and also assured continuation of power subsidies. But the talks on the contentious issues and two main demands — repealing of three news laws enacted in September and legal guarantee for MSP (Minimum Support Price) procurement system — remained inconclusive. Now, both sides hope for a resolution in the next round of talks scheduled to be held on 15 January.
The country’s agriculture sector, which contributes around 15 per cent of the GDP and employs more than half of the population, saw good, bad and ugly moments in equal measure this year. Nevertheless, the sector remained the only bright spot in the Indian economy, which was battered by the pandemic. At a time when almost all the industries were severely impacted, the agriculture and allied sectors grew 3.4 per cent in both first and second quarters of this fiscal while the economy contracted 23.9 per cent and 7.5 per cent, respectively, during the same period.
The country had record foodgrain production of 296.65 million tonnes in 2019-20 crop year (July-June) and the output could cross 300 million tonnes in the current 2020-21 on good monsoon, which has led to higher sowing of kharif and rabi crops. Just before the outbreak of the pandemic in the country, the Union government in the Budget in February enhanced allocation for agriculture and allied sector by 30 per cent to Rs 1,42,761 crore for this fiscal.
While many farmers, especially those growing perishables items, suffered in the initial days of the lockdown and were forced to dump their crops, paddy and wheat growers were able to sell their crops. The government purchased a record 39 million tonnes of wheat at the MSP.
Thanks also to a good southwest monsoon and relaxed lockdown norms that ensured timely supply of farm inputs, farmers sowed kharif crops like paddy on time and harvested the crop. Like wheat, the government has already procured record 45 million tonnes of paddy so far in this kharif marketing season.
The government, which was sitting on huge buffer stocks of foodgrains because of bumper production and procurement in the last several years, provided free ration to whopping 80 crore poor from April till November, a major relief for people severely impacted by the pandemic.