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Corona and the rural economy

Opinion

April 4, 2020

The reported share of agriculture in Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is 18.5 percent which certainly does not look impressive.

But then look at it from this angle: almost two of every five members of Pakistan’s workforce (38.5 percent) are employed in the agriculture sector; and many of our major exports – cotton yarn, textiles, rice, oranges, leather garments etc – are directly dependent upon agriculture. Also, two of every three people living in Pakistan are residing in rural areas where agriculture is the main – if not only – source of livelihood.

If all of this does not sufficiently highlight the need to devise a dedicated plan for saving our villages and their population from the coronavirus, then here is another compelling reason: Rural Pakistan provide us with our staple food crop – wheat – the scarcity of which can easily turn into a big non-traditional security threat.

Wheat is sown on 9.16 million hectares during the current crop season. Its yield is projected to be 27.03 million tons this year, though inclement weather may result in its lower than expected production. But even if the target is missed, we could still have enough wheat to meet our flour requirement for 2020.

The use of the qualifying verb ‘could’ in the sentence above is deliberate since the availability of wheat grain this year depends entirely on whether the spread of coronavirus allows its safe and unhindered harvesting, threshing, transportation, procurement and storage. The safety and smoothness of these operations is a necessary condition not only to ensure food security for the whole country but also to contain the negative economic consequences of the pandemic in rural areas.

Wheat harvesting has already started in Sindh. The crop is also approaching maturity in Punjab where 80 percent of the country’s share is sown. Even if its reaping here is delayed by a few days due to rains, the process is sure to start in the second half of April.

Normally wheat is harvested manually (with sickles), through semi-mechanized means (with reapers and threshers) and fully mechanized ways (with combine harvesters). All these methods require people to get together and interact with each other – in violation of the social distancing code required to keep the virus at bay.

Once the farmers have reaped the crop, provincial food departments, a federal agency – the Pakistan Agricultural Supplies and Storage Corporation (PASSCO) – flour mills and ‘chakkis’ (small milling operations) will start procuring wheat for storage and processing. The procurement process starts with the provision of jute bags by the government to the farmers and ends with the wheat’s transportation to mills and warehouses. Both these also require large-scale human interaction which can easily help the virus spread.

The good news is that the number of reported cases of the coronavirus in rural areas is quite low so far. The worrying thing is that this could change for the worse if we do not handle the harvesting and procurement of wheat properly. An important factor in this regard is screening and testing all those thousands of workers who have been returning to their villages from large cities such as Karachi and Lahore since March 12 when Pakistan’s coronavirus cases were less than two dozens. If only a few hundred of them are infected but are not detected, they could easily infect millions of others by joining those involved in harvesting and procuring wheat.

In the last two weeks, reported coronavirus cases have increased to more than 2400. Imagine where the number of cases will be in the next 15 days – when wheat harvesting in Punjab will start – if it continues moving along its current trajectory. Now imagine the huge number of farm workers (some of whom could be potential carriers of the virus) needed for harvesting and post-harvesting operations and what you have is a recipe for a disaster of an unprecedented scale.

So how can that be avoided?

There is, unfortunately, no best-case scenario here as the disease does not seem to be ending in the next two weeks. So, following a business as usual approach for wheat harvesting could easily lead to a large-scale outbreak of the virus in the villages. In a worst-case scenario, the disease may become so widespread that it makes it impossible to muster the sufficient number of able-bodied labourers who can harvest the wheat crop spread over several million hectares.

In another but similarly troubling scenario, the lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus might have to be made so tight that it makes wheat harvesting, transportation and procurement impossible. In either case, the need for a failsafe strategy and standard operating procedures for a successful wheat harvesting/procurement is both urgent and vitally important.

The very first step required in this regard is to prevent further infections and to ensure healthcare for and isolation of those who have been already infected. Prevention also includes the provision of appropriate protective gear and hand-washing facilities for farm workers, machine operators, post-harvest ancillary labourers, transporters, packers and procurement officials. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) needs to start planning now so that it can cater to the needs of these people once the harvesting season starts.

Secondly, the government must ensure that the farmers get sufficient numbers of jute bags without hassle in order to transport their produce to procurement centers. Usually, these bags can be procured from the government’s designated depots after depositing security money and fulfilling some documentary requirements. Now the government should ensure that the farmers can pay money for the bags digitally and receive them at their doorsteps. This could be made possible by deploying the prime minister’s volunteer force.

Third, the government should run awareness campaigns in local languages to encourage the reaping of the crop mechanically since these involve fewer number of labourers than other methods do. To make mechanical harvesting affordable, district administration should ensure that machine owners do not overcharge and also make their machines available in sufficient numbers.

In areas where small farmers cannot afford to deploy combine harvesters on their individual farms due to negative economies of scale, the government should buy the whole standing crop from individual farmers and then harvest them collectively through mechanical means. The farmers may resist the deployment of harvesters because they need wheat stalk to feed their livestock; animal nutritionists must start working to offer them alternative dryfeed options so as to overcome their resistance.

In case a strict lockdown has to be enforced, a permit system must be introduced for smooth movement of harvesters and skilled labourers across farmlands. Similarly, farm machinery workshops and the sellers of auto spare parts must be allowed to operate so that harvesting operations continue without any let or hindrance.

The drivers of harvesters must be also educated to disinfect daily the frequently touchable parts of their machinery such as steering wheels, knobs, gear levers, brakes etc both at the start and end of a workday. All farm workers should be educated through FM radios and TV channels on the need to maintain social distance and personal hygiene. Since commercially produced sanitisers and disinfectants are not easily available in markets at prices that machine operators and farm labourers can afford, the government should advertise alternative ways of producing these materials through locally available ingredients such as chlorine bleach and detergents.

All said, it is the right of every worker – whether employed at an industrial unit or in a wheat farm – to work in an environment that is safe from the coronavirus. They also have the right to free access to healthcare if they get sick besides being eligible for a sustained food supply and financial support through various government-run social safety programmes.

In our battle against the pandemic, our focus has been on urban populations so far. Now is the time to save our rural economy and those who are dependent upon it – and that means all of us.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Twitter: @abidsuleri