By Enid Still, Sandeep Kumar, Irene Leonardelli and Arianna Tozzi. This blog was originally posted on Undisciplined Environments on 30 April 2020.
A two part series on the uneven experiences and everyday challenges of lockdown conditions in India. Reflections and insights from women and small-scale farmers, migrant workers and civil society activists in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra point to a systemic blindness of the state and economic system, which fail to see, understand or respond to the struggles of the most marginalised people in the country.
Across the world critical voices are speaking out about the deadly impacts of government measures, which try to ‘slow the spread‘ or ‘flatten the curve‘ of COVID-19. There has been increasing concern about the impacts of the pandemic on global food systems in different parts of the world. In India, where the lockdown has been sudden and poorly planned, impacts on farmers and other food producers, such as fishing communities, have revealed both the social unevenness of lockdown conditions and the fragility of the current food systems. Commentators in India are reporting the unfolding of a twin crisis of pandemic and starvation as food supply chains are weakened, disproportionately affecting the poorer and marginalised sections of society.
The situation in India is tense and difficult for all sections of society but lockdown conditions have amplified social inequalities, particularly felt along the lines of gender, class and caste. The impacts on food systems and on the curtailed movement of people, which paradoxically has forced thousands of workers to migrate from cities, make visible socio-ecological entanglements, showing how particular social, political and ecological environments have influenced the scale and impact of the lockdown. In this two-part series we bring insights from both Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra into conversation, highlighting both the complexity of the lockdown conditions and the scale of the still unfolding crisis.
In this first part, we address the structural roots of the uneven experiences of lockdown conditions in India, bringing into question the dominance of patriarchal and market logics, which underpin the current food system. Narratives from fruit and vegetable farmers in Tamil Nadu articulate the fears and uncertainties different farmers face as the state struggles to support and communicate with agricultural communities. In part II, we present an interview with Seema Kulkarni and Sneha Bhat, two activists and researchers who have been on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis caused by the lockdown, supporting migrants and women farmers – some of the most marginalized groups in Maharashtra.
Everyday challenges of lockdown for Tamil Nadu’s farmers
Following the measures taken in China and Europe, India introduced a 21-day countrywide lockdown starting on 24th March, which was then further extended to 3rd May. The lockdown measures have curtailed people and industries; resulted in police violence in some parts of India; and have created uncertainty among marginalised communities who live on daily wages. Agriculture and food distribution were only added to the guidelines on exceptions through an addendum made by the Union Home Ministry on 27th March, contributing to confusion in different states about the enforcement of the lockdown measures.
Fruit and vegetable farmers in Tamil Nadu, who are expecting a high yield this season due to extended monsoon rains, know the urgency of this situation as they face not being able to harvest, transport or sell their crops. However, the confusion, fear and uncertainty they feel, much like farmers across the whole country, are not only a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Rather, they are rooted in the invisibilisation of agricultural communities and the systemic devaluation of agricultural workers and their labour. Fear and uncertainty are an everyday, simmering reality for farmers who depend on a fragile economic system, dominated by capitalist and productivist market logics now coming undone under the COVID-19 lockdown. Alternative economies are possible however, and are already emerging as capitalist food systems weaken and farmers look to local, non-monetised and immediate forms of exchange.
Invisible labour, invisible suffering
Despite the integral role of farmers in sustaining food supplies and maintaining the economy, farmers in India – particularly women farmers – are invisibilised and undervalued. Similar to agricultural systems across the world, India’s neoliberal and market-orientated approach has created conditions where farmers are subject to volatile market conditions and often exclusive policies, which restrict their access to the very food they grow. Even farmers who are able to practice subsistence agriculture are often reliant on the market for seeds and other inputs.
Feminist academics and researchers such as Bina Agarwal, Sumi Krishna and Ranjana Padhi have highlighted how Brahmanical, patriarchial social structures (control over women to maintain patrilineal succession and caste purity) still permeate various levels of land governance in India, reproducing a social and state imagination of the farmer as an upper caste male landowner. Landless farmers, who are disproportionately women and Dalit (the term is used to describe sections of the Indian population, who are economically, politically and socio-culturally oppressed by Hindu society), are therefore often not recognised as ‘farmers’ by the state. This restrictis their access to rural welfare and livelihood schemes and other forms of relief. Making up over 80% of the agricultural workforce in India, these farmers face multiple levels of stigmatisation and violence when trying to cultivate, transport and sell their produce. Under the COVID-19 lockdown, these injustices are compounded through further exploitation by traders, no access to daily income and the movement of people and food being severely curtailed.
Farmers in India are therefore a community on the front lines of economic and environmental shocks. Farmer suicides, which have been a phenomenon across the country since the mid-1990s, are a visceral reminder of this. The unsustainability of green revolution farming practices and technologies, which remain widespread across the country are entangled with systemic marginalisation. For instance, persistent caste and gender inequalities, as well as mounting agricultural, dowry and medical debts, are reproduced partly due to enduring inequalities in agricultural systems and policies. There are also clear correlations between suicides rates and environmental and economic shocks, which result in farmers losing their crops or abilities to access labour or markets.
Harvesting in times of fear and uncertainty
The lockdown has affected farmers of all crops and animal husbandry, as they are often interconnected and rely on the stability of national markets and supply chains. Farmers in sectors like poultry farming, livestock farming, horticulture, aquaculture and grain cultivation all suffer from state border closures, fear of police brutality, fear of contracting the virus and lack of labour for harvesting. Yet, like with any crisis, these effects are experienced unevenly. Whereas, grains such as rice, wheat, and millet can be stored and preserved, summer crops such as watermelon, muskmelon and cucumber cannot be stored for more than two weeks. Farmers need to make sure these melons reach traders before they become over-ripe and undesirable for consumers.
Murugan, a farmer in Chengalpattu District, Tamil Nadu, who we recently interviewed [interviewees have been anonymised] and who runs a nine acre family farm, describes the particular concerns of fruit farmers under lockdown conditions:
“Melons require heavy duty vehicles for transport since melons are sold to traders across India. Sometimes the loaded lorries have to cross several states until they reach their destination. Thus, these summer crops require heavier capital investment compared to other common crops. Even though it is difficult for marginal farmers to invest in melon cultivation, the profit is often promising. Therefore many farmers have invested their labour and capital in summer crops without anticipating the repercussions of the pandemic. Many farmers have taken high interest loans from loan sharks with a hope to repay after the harvest.
Currently the crops are near harvest but the farmers do not have access to any sort of transport due to the lockdown. Lorry drivers fear police brutality and other complications in travel and are therefore unwilling to cross borders. The few drivers who are ready to procure charge exorbitant fees and traders demand rock-bottom prices for melons, ten times lower than the usual market price.”
As Murugan describes, farmers are stuck in a bind, facing either exploitative prices for their crops or leaving the harvest to rot in the fields. While consumers face increasing prices of food products, farmers have to endure the agony of huge financial losses. Traders and retailers, knowing the short time span farmers have to get their fruit and vegetables to the market, capitalise on this and the confusion under lockdown.
Alongside farmers such as Murugan, who represent small and medium sized farmers in India, there are also marginal farmers and agricultural workers, who rely on cultivating small areas of land and/or work as daily wage labourers on other farmers’ lands. Women farmers, who work both individually and collectively as part of a Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu face problems similar to those mentioned by Murugan. As a representative from the FPO described:
“The restrictions on movement mean that overnight the farmers have lost access to their daily income from both flowers and fresh vegetables, such as brinjal [aubergine] and okra. Those who can reach towns are unable to sell enough to cover the travel and have the added worry of police violence they hear about in the news and social media. Many of the women also cultivate groundnut and are in the middle of the harvesting season. Without the agricultural labourers, who are scared to leave their homes, much of the crop will be left to rot in the fields. Even if the crop is harvested, with no market to sell and lack of access to storage facilities, the women say the ground nuts will spoil either way. Those who have been able to approach local traders or retailers are met with low prices impossible for them to accept as they would not cover the transport costs, let alone the labour and other input costs.”
Countering fear and uncertainty through alternative supply chains
Currently some supply lines are open, and fresh food supplies are reaching the mandis [markets] in cities. However, these supply chains remain inaccessible for the majority of small-scale and marginal farmers, particularly in the rural areas where the vital public transport system, which connects remote villages and market towns is no longer operating. Information about mobility and pricing regulations under the lockdown are difficult for farmers to access, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by middlemen and traders, as described by the women farmers in Villupuram District. Both fear and lack of information is being taken advantage of under the lockdown, reinforcing existing social inequalities and unjust pricing practices.
Unlike other types of economic or environmental shocks, the physical or social distancing and confinement measures taken to deal with this pandemic arguably add another layer of uncertainty. The social networks, civil society groups and local markets that are often able to support farmers by providing information and relief in times of crisis were initially curtailed, with people confined to their homes. Nevertheless, extensive efforts by NGOs and civil society organisations are being seen across the country.
In relation to agriculture and food, local social and economic networks as well as wider civil society networks are helping to distribute food supplies to those who have suddenly lost their daily income, thus buffering the shocks faced by farmers. In addition, collective farming models and practices, such as the FPO in Villupuram Distrcit, offer potential solutions to the unfolding impacts of COVID-19. As a registered corporation with institutional linkages, such organisations are able to offer financial and logistical support, connecting small-scale farmers to larger supply chain networks, which they may not have had access to otherwise. These networks do not only provide immediate relief but can potentially open up possibilities for local economies to function, preventing mass wastage of vital food supplies and huge financial losses for farmers.
The measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in India have therefore revealed not only the fragilities but also the injustices of a food system that devalues and invisibilises food producers. Conversely, these fragilities have also revealed the possibilities of locally negotiated economies, collective farming practices and non-market value orientated farming and trading systems. Instead of returning to ‘normal’ and allowing the increasingly visible injustices of the food system to be seen as a temporary fallout of measures deemed necessary to save lives, could this moment in time become a catalyst for reflecting on and working towards changing food systems in India and across the world?
In part II of our series on the uneven experiences and everyday challenges of lockdown conditions in India, activist-researchers Seema Kulkarni and Sneha Bhat are interviewed about their work on the frontlines of COVID-19 relief efforts for migrants and women farmers in Maharashtra.
This blog piece is the product of a collaboration between four young researchers focusing on socio-ecological transformations in rural India from a critical feminist perspective. Witnessing the unfolding outcomes of COVID19 lockdown measures across India from places of relative safety, we have been reflecting, reading, and discussing together about the impacts of the lockdown in Maharashtra, where three of us have lived and worked in recent years.
Maharashtra’s economy is disproportionately dependent on the informal sector and more than half of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood. The rampant inequalities between city dwellers and between urban and rural areas have become more prominent and amplified in the current pandemic (see also Part I of this blog series), with slum residents, migrant workers and marginal farmers being those most affected by the lockdown. Many do not have access to the social protection schemes announced by the government to support the most disadvantaged sections of the population during the current crisis. Among them, single women, widows, the landless and Dalits are further invisibilised and marginalised by patriarchal and Brahminical norms and customs (i.e. the inter-relation of caste and gender hierarchies with imaginations of hindu supremacy), which shape everyday life, rights and access to welfare services all over India. For instance, many single women are unable to register for ration cards to purchase subsidised food grains through the Public Distribution System.
The lack of support provided by the state has left millions of migrant workers and farmers dependent on the support of civil society organisations. Collectively, these organisations have been mobilizing and fundraising to provide food and shelter, raising their voices to advocate for the rights of disadvantaged groups, to make them visible and to denounce the state’s blindness.
Wanting to understand these dynamics and to learn more about the everyday work of civil society groups in Maharashtra, we interviewed Seema Kulkarni and Sneha Bhat, two activists and researchers and our mentors at the Pune-based Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), which is also part of MAKAAM, a nationwide network fighting for the rights of women farmers. Seema and Sneha have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 relief work since the first day of the lockdown. Here is an edited version of the interview, which we hope will give more visibility to their work and the people they support.
Can you tell us a bit about the consequences of the lockdown in Maharashtra and particularly what have been the impacts across its population?
“They say that this is a disease brought by rich people travelling abroad, and yet it is the poor who are suffering the heaviest impacts. On top of a lacking health infrastructure, this economic impact of the lockdown on informal migrant workers and farmers will probably be the biggest challenge for Maharashtra and for India in general.
Immediately after the lockdown was announced and all forms of public transportation including inter-state transport came to a halt, migrant workers in cities across the country, who had lost their jobs and homes started walking for hundreds and thousands of kilometres, as they were scared of dying from hunger and just wanted to go home. In Mumbai and Pune, most of these people are informal workers who come for a few months to work in the cities and don’t have any savings, nor cash.
In Pune, the government has set up some shelter homes for stranded migrants while we have also started a small Pune Migrant Support group for those coming from states like Bihar, Chattisgarh or Jharkhand. Every day we receive desperate calls saying: “Don’t get us food, we just want to go back home”, but it is uncertain whether their home states would be able to accept them back. Here they live in places of high contagious risk and the health infrastructure in their home states is very poor. Estimates say that there are approximately 750.000 migrants in Maharashtra alone, so if all of them decided to go back, it would be very problematic.
Other, more long term migrants do have a home in cities, yet many don’t have ration cards, so they are unable to access the food supplies the government pledged to provide to address the COVID19 crisis. In this case, NGOs are also providing them cooked meals, with the help of online delivery services.”
And what about farmers?
“At the beginning we didn’t think the lockdown would impact rural areas so much. We thought there was no reason for farmers to stop working in the farms, if they were respecting all the safety precautions. But then we realised that these lockdown measures were creating a lot of troubles for farmers too.
With the end of the Rabi season [winter cropping season] a lot of crops went rotten in the fields: farmers could not harvest produce as agricultural labour work was suspended post lockdown. The harvested produce could not reach the markets as transportation was becoming a huge problem. Farmers were either forced to ‘distress sell’ their produce at very low rates or, on several occasions, to dump it in open fields. In some places, as a humanitarian gesture, they distributed their produce in their own villages to the landless or to migrants and other needy people.
Moreover, the government procurement centres are closed, so farmers who do have produce to sell have no other option but to engage with the private market and the rates are very low. In fact, the prices people pay for food supplies are going up, but farmers are paid less. This situation is going to have long-term impacts as farmers will not have any cash to invest in the coming season. The situation of agricultural labourers is even worse. Smallholders can at least count on the help of their family members but labourers are not getting any jobs.”
How are women farmers in particular affected by the lockdown?
“Women farmers, particularly single women, widows and landless are definitely among the most affected by this lockdown. They are telling us: “I don’t have more than 50INR (0.60EUR) and no free ration has been given to me, how am I going to last for another 3 weeks?” The key issue is that many single women in rural areas do not have ration cards in the first place, so they don’t have access to the government’s food distribution scheme. Moreover, in many places there is a shortage of food grains, so even women who do have ration cards often do not get enough food. And, with schools being shut, the midday meals children used to get as a form of social support are no longer provided everywhere. This becomes an extra burden for women.
There are also many women who regularly sell their vegetables in weekly bazaars and markets in nearby towns. But these, unlike the larger mandis [city markets], have been closed so women do not have a place to sell their produce, whether it is fruit, vegetables, milk, poultry or eggs. We are talking about petty vending, smaller vendors who don’t have organised networks to sell their produce to large procurement centres. There have also been cases where the police have harassed women who were trying to sell their produce. On top of all this, domestic violence is increasing at a frightening rate, like everywhere else in the world. Imagine families of ten who share very small houses, it is a big issue.”
What has been the state and central government response to these challenges and the role of civil society organisations?
“The central government’s response has been largely inadequate. It announced the lockdown without any preparation and without considering the needs of the many migrant workers who, after losing their jobs, just desperately wanted to go home. So, as they shut down transportation across the country and urged people to stay back so as not to spread the disease, they were unable to provide them with the shelter and food supplies that would have allowed them to stay in safety and dignity.
In terms of economic support, the state announced the provision of 1.7 Lakhs Crore INR (25 billion EUR) towards various social security schemes, including direct cash deposits of 500INR (6EUR), advance pensions for widowed women, 5kg extra food grains and 1kg of pulses on top of the ration card quota, and free gas cylinders for three months. There are many such schemes. However, the issue is that they do not reach the people in need. For example, the list of people registered for food rations was last updated during the 2011 census. After 9 years there are probably 100 million people who have been left out. Also, the scheme still requires people to purchase the subsidised quota upfront, resulting in a sort of a ‘buy one get one free’ scheme, which in a cash-starved economy is simply unfeasible.
Overall, the government has failed to respond adequately to this crisis, when it comes to the needs of its marginalised population. The few schemes they have provided are often very difficult to access.. Some states have been able to put in extra money for support, but in Maharashtra, which is both one of the hardest hit by the virus as well as home to a large migrant population, the state has simply been unable to cope.
Civil society organisations, as I mentioned, are mobilizing across multiple networks. We provide shelter homes and food for migrants who are left in the city and we are talking directly to the government, asking for a more adequate response. Yet, it is disheartening to see that not only is the government lost and does not know what it is doing, but it is also unwilling to acknowledge the contribution of civil society. What we can do collectively is not much, and to make a difference we really need the government’s support to mobilise resources and coordinate efforts.”
What kind of initiatives/networks of care and solidarity are arising in Maharashtra? How are they mobilising under lockdown restrictions?
“As part of the MAKAAM network, we coordinate our activities from home. In the initial phase we spent time talking to people, understanding their problems and the type of support required. Food clearly emerged as the most immediate need. We then organised a fundraising campaign, prepared a list of 600 women and locally, in a decentralised manner, we procured the food rations, organised the food kits and began distribution. Currently, we are reaching women in fourteen districts in Maharashtra, mostly in the suicide affected districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha, where MAKAAM’s presence is higher. But we are also reaching two other districts: Raigad in the Konkan coastal area, and Nandurbar, in the northern, tribal region.
To distribute food kits, the front line workers needed a government authorised transportation pass, and we developed a set of ‘good practice’ guidelines – keeping distance, washing hands, and wearing masks. We also developed guidelines about the ideal food kit, suggesting it should include not just wheat and rice but also pulses and nutritious food, as well as soap, sugar, spices, salt and peanuts – the kinds of things people cannot get through the ration system. The partner organisation then prepared the kits according to the local food practices and market availability. This is a one time, one month supply but we will have another series of calls with our partners to see how we can support these women long-term.
The second phase will be about understanding the drinking water and irrigation situation, and the challenges women will face as they go back to work. This will involve direct help for women but also advocating for targeted government programmes, particularly for farming communities. For example, the cropping season, Kharif, starts in June, so at least some of the women farmers will soon require seeds and other agricultural inputs.
Initially, support was much more about addressing the immediate crisis. Now, in parallel, we have to get the government to act because we are just a drop in the ocean. What is 600 women when you are talking about a 12 Crore (120 million) population state? So we will be constantly trying, constantly voicing to the government that these are the unserved areas, these are the women and the populations you are not reaching out to. I think this is going to be a constant activity in our long term strategy for MAKAAM.”