Submission to the NHRC Committee on the impact of the COVID epidemic on people’s human rights by Food Sovereignty Alliance, India
July 30th 2020
This submission from the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India draws from our work and presence in Adivasi and rural areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States.
I) Lockdown Period & Covid – Impact
i) Landless in rural , who are mostly Dalit and Adivasi Areas and the impact on them:
Nearly 30% of the families in rural areas and about 10-15% families in adivasi villages continue to be landless and are completely dependent on daily wage labour for their survival: food, clothes, healthcare, education of children, transportation etc. The lockdown impacted these families maximally as they were suddenly faced with no access to work, and hence no income, and thus faced severe food insecurity. The majority of the landless are Dalit.
ii) Single women in rural areas amongst the landless were particularly vulnerable as they had no support systems during the lockdown.
iii) In the first few weeks of the lockdown shepherds -particularly migratory shepherds were affected as they were denied entry into villages on their migratory route and so had no drinking water for themselves and their animals. (https://collectiveactions.weebly.com/blog/6th-april-2020-medak)
iv) Several women who regularly cultivate and sell vegetables in local markets, and some actually travel to different weekly farmer markets in Hyderabad, were unable to because of the lockdown, and instead of the the government purchasing their vegetables atleast at the prices at which they usually sell the vegetables, the government facilitated supermarkets such as MORE, to directly procure the vegetables from the villages at a mere 1/3rd the prices . The women were forced to sell it at these low prices, as they had no other options
v) NREGS and the lockdown: NREGS became a lifeline for several adivasi and dalit and other poor OBC communities, however allowing the NREGS works to happen during the lockdown, was highly questionable as it exhibited double standards from the government- one set of rules for the adivasi and dalit communities, and another for the elite and middle classes, who were being advised to stay home and strictly follow the lockdown rules and remain inside. However the various works – primarily mud related and desilting of tanks, by the shere nature of the work requires more than two people to be together and at close proximity – much closer than the desired 6 feet physical distance to minimize spread. So the demand was made by several social movements and civil society groups to advance payment and that people would work for that amount later, or alternately just make a payment based on deemed work having been done.
See https://collectiveactions.weebly.com/blog/article-on-nregs-in-andhra-jyoti-newspaper for more details
vi)Whilst the lockdown has severely impacted livelihoods, the Supreme Court in On April 22, 2020, pronounced a judgment dissolving Go.Ms. No 3 by reason of constitutional disagreement with 100 percent reservation for Scheduled Tribe teachers in schools situated in Scheduled Areas. This judgement threatens the livelihood and employment opportunities for adivasi communities and challenges the Schedule V provisions. Furthermore this judgement would serve as a precedent to weaken the entire provision of ‘Reservation’ for all marginal communities, a provision that is paramount to the principle of Social Justice enshrined in the Constitution.
vii)There has been a sharp increase in the cases of violence against women in the rural areas. The lockdown imposed restrictions on women to be confined to the home, which in many cases is the site of violence. Further the breakdown of support systems and restricted movement, further worsened the situation.
II) Post Lockdown, Covid and looking ahead
- Undemocratic Telangana Agriculture Plan that threatens food security- and puts at risk rural agrarian families : Nearly 55% of total families in Telangana are directly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Depending on the year and source of data 44% to 57% of all rural families are landless totaling 38,42,572 families, of whom 21% are Dalits and 49% are OBCs and 8% are minorities.
75% of landowning families are small and marginal farmers with the average landholding size being 2.5 acres. Acccording to NSSO data of 2014, 89% of farming families are steeped in debt (as compared to 51.9% at the All India Level) with the average indebtedness being Rs 93500 or double of the the national average of Rs 47000. Telangana also has a large number of tenant farmers, who lease land in from larger landowning farming classes. From a caste perspective the large landowning farmer classes are also the dominant castes such as Reddys and Velammas, and Baniyas and the small and marginal farmers are OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis. The vast majority of landless in Telangana are Dalits.
Whilst the major crops cultivated are cotton, maize as animal feed, and paddy, ironically the state imports all its oil, over 60% of its vegetables, fruit, and a large quantity of its pulses from other states. Farmer suicide deaths have clearly been pinned down to farmers being trapped in huge mounting debts via monocrop cultiation of cotton and then paddy. In short the policies thus far have encouraged farmers to cultivate non-food crops, and food crops such as paddy as a commodity, sell these and in turn purchase their food from the markets, where the food is largely from out of the state. There has been large scale mechanisation of production, with a decline of animal rearing. Heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers characterises the farming. This is driving a highly non-nutritious, unbalanced and toxic diets on peoples plates, and growing food insecurity amongst landless, small and marginal farming families.
It is in such a context, where leading upto the Kharif season 2020, before the lockdown was lifted, in late May 2020 the Telangana government took a completely draconian and undemocratic decision to dictate to the farmers the crops to grow on their lands. Further more to enforce it, they linked the Rythu Bandha Scheme (this is a scheme where the farmer is paid Rs 5000/acre by the state government as investment for their land), to the crops grown .If they grew any other crops in their area other than the government plan they would not be eligible for the payment. What is worse, the cultivation plan far from being a plan to enhance food crops, which is the clear need of the hour, particularly in these Corona times where people have to build their immunity to the disease through consuming nutritious and pesticide free foods, the plan comprises 50 lakh hectares to be cultivated with cotton, 80-90 lakh hectares under paddy for both seasons (rabi and kharif), with guidelines encouraging the farmers to grow fine rice in place of shorter and thicker rice varieties. Farmers prefer to grow the shorter, thicker varieties of rice which have higher yield than the fine rice. 10 lakh hectares for red gram, 7 lakh hectares under maize but not in Kharif, and only in Rabi, 7 lakh hectares under seed production in tie ups with companies, and the remaining under chilli, vegetables, groundnut, turmeric. They have also allocated between 5-10 lakh hectares of land for palm oil plantations.. For over 20 years now cotton , and in more recent years paddy has been linked directly to spiralling farmer suicides in Telangana, due to the huge debts incurred and unstable markets. Further more calculations made by agriculture scientists and other farmers organisations in Telangana estimate not more than 21 lakh hectares required to be dedicated for paddy, so that Telangana can meet its own rice requirements ! The government has made no written commitment of procuring these crops at prices which will cover the production costs of the farmers along with providing them an income. Thus the entire agriculture plan is placing this large swathe of rural telangana population under huge food insecurity risk particularly worrying in a Covid pandemic situation, which calls for a all state resources to be mobilised towards massive refocusing on localising food production, consumption and distribution, and transition from chemical / pesticides to agro-ecological ways of production.
2. 3 Central Ordinances on Agriculture Markets and Commodities – a death knell for farmers: In May during the lockdown period ,the Central government passed 3 ordinances
i) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, amends the existing act to remove basic food items including cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions, and potatoes from the list of essential commodities, which will help address private investors’ concerns of excessive regulatory interference in their business operations. This essentially facilitates free operations of large agri-business corporations and logistics companies who control value chains of agriculture produce from procurement to sales.
(ii) Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, to promote barrier-free inter-state and intra-state trade and commerce outside the physical premises of markets notified under State Agricultural Produce Marketing legislations. It claims to provide farmers with opportunities to sell their produce to more players, and thus be able to negotiate better prices. However in reality, as we have witnessed in other sectors such as Dairying, when similar restrictions on procurement and sales of milk were lifted in 1992, the multiple processors today ended up becoming monopolies in the market, with farmers having no bargaining power at all. It is clear that this ordinance too will facilitates agri-business to directly procure goods at cheaper prices, as the prices in the market yards are regulated and outside, these will be unregulated.
(iii) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020, which provides for a national framework for agreements with the farmer by any third party. It is an enabling legal framework for contract farming.
These three ordinances in the words of a recent report by the USDA “ will allow Indian farmers to remove previously state-imposed market intermediaries and directly sell their agricultural production (mostly perishable produce) to a much larger pool of buyers, including out-of-state markets. Potential new private sector actors have also been liberated and, as such, have an incentive to invest in warehousing, cold-storage facilities, and other market improvements.”
The reality is these ordinances will benefit a handful of agri-business corporations that are in the global business of Food, which desire to capture the profits they see in the value-chain of Food, in a large 1.3 billion strong food consuming country like India. These agri-business players control the entire supply chain from produce procurement, processing, storage, packaging and distribution via supermarkets. These ordinances have been passed to benefit them, and completely crush particularly the small and marginal farmers.
Further more they undermine the power of state governments, which actually have the power to plan for agriculture in their states, in light of agriculture being on the state list.
It is absolutely shocking that in an emergency and catastrophic situation like the Corona Pandemic where the government gave to itself unlimited powers to control its citizens via invoking the draconian colonial Epidemic Act, under the amended Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, agricultural processors and exporters will be exempted from any kind of stock limit impositions even under “catastrophic” conditions such as war, famine, price fluctuations, natural calamities, etc.
The government in its ordinance has the audacity of arguing that the break down of supply chains under the Corona situations, justifies the need to have multiple marketing chains, and hence the need to liberalise agriculture markets.
3. The government continues to negotiate Free Trade Agreements through the lockdown and post lockdown, with the pandemic raging- with US, EU, UK to name a few, and agriculture and food are key items on the list – where these countries are eager to have free access to India’s food markets to dump their subsidized meat, poultry, dairy and other agiruclture produce. All of these threaten to jeopardize farmers livelihoods, and in turn threaten food security and sovereignty and the right to food. The threats of such FTAs to the RIght to Food, were researched and revealed in 2011 for the EU-India FTA, and if anything under the new COVID situation with massive increase in hunger and food deprivation, the impact of loss of livelihoods if such agreements are finalised is massive.
Given the restrictions on public gatherings in view of the pandemic, its convenient for the government to pass such ordinances, as they know they will not be faced with peoples protest on the streets, but merely online petitions and webinars of protest and dissent.
4. The Food insecurity that looms ahead of us in the above scenario is all the more of concern as it is coupled with
- the existing disease burden / morbidity profiles in rural areas- with not only existing traditionally recognised problems such as malnutrition/ undernutrition/ anemia amongst children and women but the prevalence of conditions such as blood pressure, diabetes, kidney stones, heart ailments, cancer, to name a few. Many of these are directly located in the poor diets, heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers as also the growing stress and tensions within communities. All of these are co-morbidities which compromise and complicate Corona conditions. Dengue, Typhoid and other seasonal diseases during the monsoons have already begun. In the adivasi areas additionally cerebral malaria is wide spread and life threatening.
- Crumbling and hugely underfinanced Public Health Care System coupled with a privatised health care system, which cannot respond to a potential explosion of Covid cases which may require hospitalisation and advanced treatment.
- Unlike in AP where the Government of AP announced that all Corona treatment will be covered under the existing Aarogya Shree Insurance Coverage of the government, nothing has been announced by the Government of Telangana.
5. With schools closed and children at home, recent surveys indicate the implausibility of reaching out to students through online classes, as is happening for privileged urban students of wealthy families, several children are back to working in fields. Furthermore due to closed schools all the students are being deprived of mid-day meals. Our surveys in the rural villages indicate how it is once again the Dalit, OBC and Muslim children who study in the government schools, with all the dominant castes children and wealthier OBC children being in private schools. These children will be crucially food -deprived.
6. What is of deep concern is the return of child labour in cotton fields (boys and girls) and the urgency amongst parents to marry their daughters of as soon as they can. Telangana is already one of the states in South India with large numbers of child marriages . With the expansion of cotton cultivation under the above a criminal cultivation plan of Govt of Telangana, the explosion of children in cotton fields is a real possibility, particularly with labour shortages, and economic stresses
7) The Pandemic is rapidly spreading into rural and adivasi areas, and people are very scared. Many have stopped going to work in factories/ companies close to their villages, and limit their work to the village boundaries, of fear of contracting the disease. So even without the lockdown, people are self-confining themselves, and thus experiencing loss of income. When corona positive cases are identified in villages, depending on the numbers, the village, small town is put under lockdown.
Earning money to access food, is clearly going to emerge as a major concern for not only the landless agriculture workers, but small and marginal farmers who also work as labour to supplement their income.
- Under the collapsing livelihoods situation, it is imperative that regular monthly cash transfer is made to each families bank account to ensure they have money to purchase food.
- Universal Public Distribution System is imperative and must replace the targeted PDS. Many families are still applying for ration cards. Increase and diversify the rations being made available through the PDS. In Telangana and AP its merely Rice and 1 kg of pulses per month. Millets, pulses, oil should be provided.
- Agriculture policy plans and financing to farmers to support food cultivation and animal rearing: millets, pulses, oil seeds,vegetables and support to enable agro-ecological farming and shift away from chemicals.
- Support farmers to organise into collectives for local markets of food.
- Land reforms to be carried out on an emergency basis. Support collectives of youth to do collective farming, leasing in land and growing food.
- Mid -Day meals of children equivalent in dry rations can be provided to the families whose children study in the schools. Currently in both Telangana and AP this is being done for the anganwadi children.
- Withdraw the ordinances on agriculture markets
- Keep agriculture and Food out of all trade agreements
 Centre for Social Development, 2019. Telangana Social Development Report
 2011, Paasch Amin et al. Right to Food Impact Assessment of the EU-India Free Trade Agreement.