Interviews

Scientists Must Develop Crop Varieties that can Withstand Variations of Weather: Dr Shivendra Bajaj

Dr Shivendra Bajaj

Here's an interview with Dr Shivendra Bajaj, who is the Executive Director of Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII) on COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and its impact on agriculture and allied sectors.

1. How did Indian agriculture and rural economy fare during the lockdown that had disrupted the supply chain and caused unavailability of labour? 

After the lockdown was imposed in the end of March 2020, farmers and agriculture supply chain had a difficult time to set a standard process for interstate transfer of goods. We should also note that farmers harvest and sale winter crop such as wheat and pulses between April-June. Further, summer rainfed crops like paddy, pulses, cotton, sugarcane are sown in this period. Hence, one can imagine that a lot was at stake during the initial lockdown period.  

Proactive measures taken by the government supported the farmers as well as agricultural industry. The government included Agricultural related activities in the Essential Services that were allowed during the lockdown with appropriate safety measures.   

Cotton, fruits and vegetable farmers across the country suffered from a plunge in prices due to the bottlenecks in movement from villages to cities. An increase of 49% has been observed for fertilizers sales, this could be due to good expected kharif crop.  

The seed companies operated their plants after taking necessary precautions like- Operation with 30% staff, frequent site sanitization, social distancing and regular health monitoring of the staff. There was no overlap between shifts and the machines on site were sanitized between shifts. Such measures have decreased the productivity of the plants by 50%, even though plants were operating in multiple work shifts. Inter-city movement of staff as well as movement across villages was a challenge, especially as villagers were blocking the entry of outsiders.  

R&D activities were stalled. Export and import activities were challenging with delays in phytosanitary certifications and custom handling due to a skeletal staff managing both operations. Non- availability of labour for loading and unloading at ports was also an issue. 

Harvest was enabled with subsidized procurement of the farm machinery as farm labour was not available. That seed related operations be declared as essential business was taken up with several state governments and was promptly granted. The availability of trucks and restrictions in their movement was taken up with government. Trucks carrying seeds were issued passes that allowed them to move across the nation. The government also set up special cargo and courier services for movement of essentials. Indian Railways took up operations of Parcel services specially to support seed movement across the nation. 

2. Agriculture showed positive growth when other economic indicators of the GDP had slowed down. What are the reasons for good performance of the agriculture sector? 

Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India. 70 percent of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82 percent of farmers being small and marginal. Agricultural supply chains have proved to be resilient to the national lockdown as farm operations were unaffected and large wholesale markets such as Azadpur in Delhi and Vashi in Navi Mumbai continued to function until COVID-19 cases were detected in these mandis.  Although several agriculture sub-sectors have taken a hit during the pandemic, agri output is spread out over several activities, which has helped cushion the blow. Food grains are also better protected by government measures like minimum support price and procurement assistance which helped in controlling inflation of prices. In several states such as Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh the government ensured that their wheat farmers got a decent price for their produce. The credit support extended by the Government of India also helped the industry in these tough times. While demand has declined in the restaurant and hospitality industries, household demand surged during this period.   

3. The RBI has called the agriculture sector a bright spot? Can agriculture rescue Indian economy? 

The agriculture was a bright spot during the pandemic as other businesses shut down. As mentioned above, majority of the rural household is involved in agriculture. Moreover, with allied sectors and ecommerce, agriculture is spread out. While agriculture is the backbone of the economy, it too needs support from other sectors to facilitate it with right environment. Infrastructure, mechanisation, science, technology etc is required to make it successful and lucrative. We need policy support to ensure that Agriculture continues to contribute to nation’s economy as other sectors pick up.  

4. Do you think government interventions helped farmers in overcoming the challenges thrown by the lockdown?  

Yes, government along with the proactive intervention from the industry in understanding the needs of the farmers while protecting its employees helped in overcoming the challenges. The Government took several steps as outlined in question 1.  

5. What are the short-term and long-term impacts of the lockdown on the agriculture sector?  

The short-term impacts posed by lockdown has now been eased. From long term point of view, the lockdown hastened the  agri industry to go digital. However, the agriculture extension and engineering services and the supply chain of agricultural equipment may have been impacted. It is important to ensure that all services resume normally to provide necessary services to the agriculture sector.    

6. Has the lockdown offered opportunities for the growth of the agriculture sector? How can they be leveraged?    

The lockdown offered opportunities to develop facilitative legal framework to enable farmers engage with processors, aggregators, large retailers, exporters etc. in a fair and transparent manner.  Such measure along with a support credit and crop insurance will help mitigate the risk for farmers and assure returns and quality standardisation shall form integral part of the framework. The digitization of the agriculture sector is another opportunity that should be vigorously pursued beyond the lockdown.  

7. What measures farmers must take to protect themselves from unpredictable weather and volatile commodity markets? 

Unpredictable weather or climate change would be the reality of agriculture. We need to adopt to the change and develop varieties that can withstand variations of weather. Diversification of crops is another option for farmers. Crops that take less water and mature faster can be adopted.  

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