TODAY -

COVID-19 pandemic highlights the virtues of small towns and villages

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi *



Agriculture and rural affairs are attracting an increased attention of the Central Government, and rightly so as the agrarian sector bucked the negative growth recorded by almost every other sector of the COVID-19 hit economy. Successive Governments have focused more on industrialization and spread of the services sector as the means to power the country’s economy.

Even the 1991 economic reforms skirted the farm sector that was also crying out for drastic changes in how the farming operations were carried out. But, now, the Central Government has begun to increase thrust in the farm sector.

In the aftermath of the outbreak of coronavirus, it is agriculture alone that showed an upward growth even as all other sectors plunged into negative growth, for the first time in over four decades. Such has been the impact of the pandemic that has the entire world in its grip, adversely affecting many countries, some more severely than the others.

We in India have also witnessed negative growth for the financial year going by and are hopeful of a recovery next year. But till then, we would have to be extremely thankful to the farming community for spreading cheer in an otherwise gloomy environment.

In fact, now the big consumer durables, electronics, and ecommerce, are registering a three percent to six percent growth in rural India on the strength of improved showing in agriculture and allied activities.

If not anything, the coronavirus pandemic has been kinder to agriculture, as it found a solution to its most vexed of problems–shortage of labour, as thousands of migrant labourers poured into their respective villages after Lockdown was lifted. With industries and services units shut and without any earnings, many had even walked to their homes, hundreds of kilometres away.

The Government tried to address this by increasing the budget for rural employment guarantee scheme, over and above the existing limit of Rs 61,000 crore. The Government has increased its proposed spend under MGNREGA by Rs 40,000 crore, and announced its intentions to spend more in the agricultural sector.

With a view to strengthen the agriculture sector, improve productivity and quality of produce, the Government came out with three Farm Bills that it promises will change the agricultural landscape of the Nation. At present, the farming community suffers as majority of them are small farmers owning less than 2 acres each, which makes it difficult for them to carry out the necessary modifications in their farming methods and techniques.

Besides, on the knowledge front, the farmers do not have access to market information that is so essential to plan their crops and cropping patterns and choice of crop. For the present, the farming community has rejected these Farm Bills and are agitating for their repeal as they fear they would enslave them to the interests of the big corporates.

The several farmers’ unions at the forefront of the agitation now taking place at the different borders of the union capital city of Delhi, are prepared for the long haul, they claim. So far, the agitation has been peaceful, and both sides have dug in.

While the Government has rejected the demand for repeal of the laws the farmers said they will not go back without achieving their objective of forcing the Government to do away with the Bills that they claim will put them at a disadvantage as corporate players move into agriculture.

The Government is trying its best to allay the fears of the farming community and came out with a series of concessions that it said would remove the fears of the farmers–of reiterating the promise of continuation of MSP, assurance to provide a level playing field to the APMC by taxing the private mandis at the same rate, and promised to set up farmers’ tribunal or give Court protection to farmers from the corporates.

Till now the dispute resolution mechanism for tussle between the farmers and corporates was the local Sub-Divisional Magistrate, who had the power to adjudicate. Though the protestors have declared intensification of stir, what is to be welcomed is that they have kept the doors of negotiations open. The Government hopes a way out could be formed out of this agitation that it believes was politically motivated.

Even before enacting the three Farm Laws, the Government had announced, over and above the continuing schemes, a financing facility of Rs one trillion (Rs 100,000 crore) for funding agriculture infrastructure projects at “farm-gate and aggregation points (primary agricultural cooperative societies, farmers producer organisations, agriculture entrepreneurs, start-ups, etc.).”

For sure, soon the agriculture sector is about to witness a lot of action, with corporates betting big on participation in the sector that has shown to be COVID-19 proof. As an idea it appears to be right to create work, livelihood options in villages and small towns so that migration to cities slows down.

Already, in the post coronavirus outbreak, reverse migration has taken place with the return of the employees from big cities to smaller towns and semi-urban and rural areas in work from home situations. They have also contributed to the increase in demand from the rural areas for goods, in a relief to some sections of the industrial sector.

To cite an example, say for a city like Hyderabad home to thousands of software engineers and IT enabled services professionals witnessed exodus of their workforce to their respective homes, as work from home became the acceptable norm. With the services sector discovering the benefits of this mode of working, it is reasonable to guesstimate that most of them would continue this experiment even after coronavirus threat is eliminated and things become normal, say within the next 6 months or so.

One thing that this phenomenon has done is that demand for rental accommodations in big cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore has come down and rents have also fallen, much to the disadvantage of the house owners.

There are cases in Hyderabad where a group of five or six families got together, took one house on rent and all of them dumped their belongings into one flat, and vacated their respective flats, and left for their homes in small towns and villages in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Similar movement has taken place from other cities as well. On the positive side, this may enable the big cities, already bursting at their seams, to heave a sigh of relief and ensure that an increased number of people can get to remain in rural and semi-urban areas. It is not for nothing that the Central Government is coming out with a stronger internet network across the country that will facilitate this work from anywhere.

Incidentally, the companies have also discovered that productivity of its employees has gone up in this work from home mode, as the workers are spending more man hours at work and the commute stress is totally gone. If we take the lesson from the pandemic and pick-up threads from our recent experiences and continue to build on them, we can have a better quality of life, and ease pressure on urban infrastructure as well.


* Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country.
He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times.
He can be reached on kvlakshman(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on December 17 2020 .



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