Lockdown disrupts agri supply chains

March 30, 2020

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Wheat harvesting in Tando Allahyar.—Photo by Umair Ali
Wheat harvesting in Tando Allahyar.—Photo by Umair Ali

Large tracts of farmland in rural areas of lower Sindh are covered with the golden wheat crop, which is ready for harvest. Labour can be seen carrying wheat for threshing. But as on March 28, Raoo Bheel, a hari who is over 50 years old, is worried about transporting wheat and vegetables, which are ready for harvest in his village Moke Sharif, Tando Allahyar.

His concerns stem from the fact that the entire province has been under lockdown since March 22 because of the coronavirus. He sees no opportunity of immediate transportation and marketing of the produce if the lockdown is prolonged, which at this point appears imminent.

As the government struggles to fight the pandemic, wheat procurement may get hit as well. The Sindh government is also hinting at a curfew that will be imposed across the province. “Our returns for vegetables like French beans are going to be much lower now. Initially, French beans fetched Rs4,800 per 50kgs. Now the price has fallen to Rs300-500 (till March 28). I will get an extremely small amount as my share after deducting expenses,” he lamented. The likes of Mr Bheel share crop expenses with growers in exchange for splitting the profit 50-50.

His fellow peasant, Pirbhu Kohli, faces a similar dilemma. He sells milk to hotels in his area which have remained closed for several days. “I have not been able to sell 10 litres of milk to these hotels. I have had to distribute it among the villagers, thus earning nothing,” he said.

‘Initially, French beans fetched Rs4,800 per 50 kilograms. Now the price has fallen to Rs300-500. I will get an extremely small amount as my share after deducting expenses’

Peasants face various issues which have been compounded by the present lockdown. Whilst a grower has multiple income generation options, a sharecropper depends on one crop or livestock to keep his economy going. So much so that people in such marginalised communities have to go to other areas for harvest and cultivation to make both ends meet. But in the absence of private transport, they have to stay at home.

Growers are also worried about the lockdown’s implications for the farm sector. In the next fortnight, about half of Sindh’s wheat crop will require marketing, along with fruits and vegetables such as banana, watermelon, etc. Curbs on transportation — big and small — will upset the supply chain and affect communities that entirely depend on the agriculture sector.

By the end of April, wheat would be harvested completely and ready for procurement that normally starts in April. However, this year the food department announced procurement from March 26. According to one official, jute bags have been supplied to centres but procurement has not commenced fully because of the lockdown. But, farmers are being offered a reasonable price for their produce in the open market.

A belated wheat-procurement exercise delays cotton cultivation which follows the wheat harvest. Not only is the transportation of cottonseed, fertiliser and pesticides a major concern, delaying the cotton cultivation makes it more vulnerable to the rainy season. As it is, it has already rained in some parts and more unusual rains could hit the entire crop.

Sindh looks set to have a good wheat crop this year with the agriculture department estimating production of around 3.8 million tonnes. The provincial government had already committed procurement of 1.4m tonnes of wheat this year at a support price of Rs1,400 per 40kgs. It had not procured grain last year, causing a flour crisis in the province in October 2019.

“The government has to procure about 25 per cent of the total crop and farmers sell the remaining crop in the open market. What about the rest of the grains? We fear that the supply chain will not remain intact in the current situation,” said Mehmood Nawaz Shah, vice president of the Sindh Abagar Board.

The government relaxed the ban on the transportation of farm inputs such as seed, pesticides and fertiliser for summer crops on March 26, with activities resuming to some extent on last Saturday (March 28). But supplies of inputs from warehouses or plants have as yet to fill the vacuum caused by the lockdown, he said.

The sowing of cotton will begin shortly for which seed availability is a must. Cottonseed is usually sourced from Punjab. In the 2020-21 season, the crop will be cultivated on 650,000 hectares of which 9.750 tonnes (15kg per ha) of seed is needed. This year’s cotton sowing target is a little over last year’s target of 640,000ha.

Various pests tend to attack crops at different stages thus pesticides are needed. “We have stocks of seed, pesticide and fertiliser to supply to farmers and shops but are being prevented because of the ban on business activity. However, since the March 26 relaxation, we hope supplies from plants will resume and continue for the kharif season,” says Javed Kaimkhani, a dealer from Mirpurkhas.

Soon after cotton cultivation, paddy sowing begins in nurseries in lower Sindh for which hybrid seeds are sourced from cities. Timing plays a crucial role in agriculture.

The federal and provincial governments are aware of the supply chain issues. Amidst reports of plans for a stricter lockdown, grower bodies urge the government towards immediate procurement of wheat and ensure an intact supply chain for the sake of food security.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 30th, 2020