The end of this lockdown has turned into a mirage now. It appears in view. We begin to cross dates on our calendars to reach it. As it comes closer there is a new situation kicking the end further away, shoving us back into our physical and mental caves. In the articulations of these days of the pandemic there are words like extraordinary, unprecedented, unusual, difficult, hardship, slowdown and vulnerability. Each of us have our own favourite word by now, with more than forty days of being locked down. Of all the words used to describe our condition and for the pandemic, is any of them new to us? Is there any that finds no mention in the stories we carry from our ancestors, in our folklores, in history books and university lectures? Yet, there is a sense of being lost, all over again.
Our sanity and resultant happiness has come to be determined by the market. We are born and that has become the only natural act in our lives now. For all years following birth we have the markets to take briefs from and conduct our lives. March to the city, that is where higher wages are. Live in the metropolis, that’s where the opportunities are. The economy has to do good for us to feel cheerful. Everything else including lost friends, forgotten parents, drifted loved ones and dropped hobbies can be dealt with, not economic uncertainty. The alienation that a vast majority has felt from the pandemic has begun to shift things. As they say, the forest floor must burn down for new growth to happen. What should this new growth look like?
Here is what I am trying to get at – that this is a country of farmers. The economic planners were blind to a structural feature of this country – that it is made of farmers. It is the farmers that made it self sufficient in its needs and picked it up everytime it fell. Yet, we continued with the dream of industrialisation using farmers as feedstock for its furnaces. A train ride is all that separates many of us from our farming roots. The migrant workers of Indian cities belong to farming families. It is to those that they have headed back in this time of crisis. It is to the farms that the economy must return. A re-connection with land in ways that aren’t driven by unbridled push for productivity and efficiency must be one of the routes out of this pandemic.
From the grim outlook that industry and markets present us now and in the near future, our farms can save us. In a recent webinar on rebooting the rural economy, former RBI Deputy Governor Usha Thorat spoke of the bright sports in rural economy. There are record levels of foodgrain stocks in our reserves. At the macro level there is the advantage of very low oil prices.
The forecast of monsoon rainfall is good and inflation is under control. In the absence of any headroom for a major fiscal package to help the economy and when corporate balance sheets, including banking and non-banking sectors are fragile, getting back to the rural sector is our best option. The pandemic has presented an opportunity to covid is the opportunity to revive agriculture and remedy the mistakes of the past decades in neglecting it. Pravesh Sharma of Kamatan Agri, a farm produce aggregation company, has earlier written on ideas to revitalise agriculture. He argues that the farming is not facing the same question that manufacturing faces right now – who will buy? Farm produce enjoys a steady demand. It is noteworthy that through all of these lockdown days unorganized fruit and veg sector has continued to function. It is also worth noting that prices of onion throughout the lockdown have not gone up. Moreover, supply of fresh vegetables and fruits has continued unabated from the beginning of the lockdown despite severe limitations on people and transport movement.
For those who find it hard to figure, here are two key facts on India’s agri sector – farming employs 48% of the labour force. This labour force supports nearly two-thirds of India’s population with its income. The workers who have gone back to their homes in rural areas, are likely to stay home for 18-24 months, argues Pravesh Sharma. There will be adequate labour available for the farming seasons ahead. The returned workforce will also need to earn. The situation can be leveraged well to jumpstart an agricultural revival as well as build rural infrastructure backed by MNREGS and other state-led schemes.
All that reasoning seems sound and well argued. But we know that good reasons may not amount to much. The bottom line is that India has seen a return of its farmers. Their small plots sold, or still in possession, can still help in their re-connection with the land. In a painful and perhaps scaring way, the realisation of what matters and where one’s ultimate resting place lies has come about. This is not just for the blue collar workers but for each one of us who is a migrant. Trinkets of the city won’t sustain us, but the hearth of a homestead can. As it appears, adoration of the city has shattered for many among us.