Contrary to what many have believed, Covid-19 has hit us back with a renewed vigour, infecting more people and testing the healthcare infrastructure more than ever before. The silver-lining that appeared with the news of vaccines is under duress as India crossed the 3-lakh new cases every day. The national capital Delhi decided to extend the lockdown by another week while many other states have implemented partial restrictions or lockdowns. Lockdowns are very strict measures that leave a deep dent in the health of the economy – noted researcher and columnist Harsh Mander called it ‘a calamitous shrinkage of the economy’. Tejal Kanitkar, associate professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, estimated that the total loss of output due to lockdown would be between INR 40 lakh crore and INR 66 lakh crore, equivalent to about 20 to 32 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). All sectors such as manufacturing, mining and quarrying, construction and real estate, trade, electricity, gas and water supply, transport and communication, hotels, finance and insurance, business services, community and social services, went into red in the last fiscal year, except for agriculture. While agricultural input materials for the Kharif season were and are out of the ambit of lockdown, harvesting season last year saw some difficulty in the form of labour shortage and market closure as most of the migrant workforce chose to leave for their hometowns. With the second wave, spiralling cases, and imminent lockdowns, this year too, agriculture may remain the only bright spot in the Indian economy.
Opportunity in agriculture
In the last fiscal, the agriculture sector grew by 3.4 per cent when all other sectors and businesses were incurring heavy losses. This provided hope to 58 per cent of Indians who are dependent on agriculture and its allied areas. However, the hindrances faced during lockdown were also used as an opportunity to address some of the long-standing problems of Indian agriculture, such as availability of groundwater and fertile land for farming, and labour migration. The lockdown prompted people to come back to their rural homes, which in turn, made a large number of resources available for the sowing and harvest season. At the same time, owing to the need to maintain physical distancing, the Indian agriculture sector opted for digital platforms, especially for supply chain management. Industry estimates show that the number of agri-tech startups in India increased from 43 start-ups in 2013 to over 1000 in 2020. The Indian agri tech market is further projected to cross USD 24.1 billion by 2025. This shift to digitisation helped in procuring materials, monitoring and implementing measures for adequate production, marketing the harvest, and distribution to the end consumers, all of which need physical interaction and could have been the casualty of nationwide lockdown. The integrated supply chain further increased the efficient use of time, transparency, and availability of products to consumers. One can hope that the digitisation of Indian agriculture will lead to sustainable growth, especially by easing the linkage of farmers to the market, with the increasing awareness of the same among the farming community.
The lockdown period proved to be good for the products that constitute India’s export basket. According to reports, agriculture and allied commodities worth INR 2.74 lakh crore were exported during April 2020 to February 2021 period, which is 18 per cent more than the value of exported goods in the same period last year. Wheat export registered an increase of 727 per cent, rising from INR 425 crore to INR 3,283 crore. The other products which posted significant growth include non-Basmati rice, soy meal, sugar, spices, raw cotton, fresh and processed vegetables and alcohol. With the Covid clasping its grip, Indian agriculture must remain as resilient as it was last time.