Second COVID-19 wave will not impact India's agri sector in any way: Niti Aayog

The labour force is moving to rural areas as there has been a lot of increase in COVID-19 cases in urban areas, and these labourers are willing to work in the agriculture sector for livelihood.
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Niti Aayog Member (Agriculture) Ramesh Chand recently said the second COVID-19 wave will not impact the Indian agriculture sector in any way as rural areas saw the spread of infections in May when agriculture activities remained at a bare minimum.

In an interview with PTI, Chand said that India's policies on subsidy, price, and technology have remained too much in favour of rice, wheat, and sugarcane, and there is a need to make the procurement and minimum support price policy favourable to pulses.

"COVID-19 cases started spreading in the rural areas in May, and agriculture activity in May is bare minimal, particularly land-based activities," he added.

"...it (May) is a peak summer month and no crop is sown, no crop is harvested except little bit vegetables and some off-season crops," Chand further explained.

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Agriculture activity, Chand said, peaks in March or till the middle of April, after that, it comes down significantly and again peaks with the arrival of monsoon.

"So even if less availability of labour is there in May till mid-June, I don't think that will impact agriculture in any way," Chand said.

He pointed out that the labour force is moving to rural areas as there has been a lot of increase in COVID-19 cases in urban areas, and these labourers are willing to work in the agriculture sector for livelihood.

"From the output side, you look at agriculture market data. The agriculture market (is) just working normally everywhere," he argued.

The Niti Aayog member noted that income from the agriculture sector, which is a major source of earning for rural people, is intact.

"So that large segment of rural income, ...it is remaining intact and rural demand on that count will not be affected," he opined.

Chand added that only in cases of some services, which are not working in the rural area, there is an issue.

"I would say that the government should keep its emphasis on MGNREGA," Chand suggested.

The Niti Aayog member, however, admitted that remittance from urban areas that has been going to rural areas and aiding rural demand will fall.

On being asked why India is not self-sufficient in pulses production, he said there is a need to increase pulses area under irrigation, and that will make a lot of difference in production and stability in prices.

He added, "In India, our subsidy, price, and technology policy have remained too much in favour of rice, wheat, and sugarcane. So, I strongly believe that along with the technological breakthrough, we need to make our procurement, our MSP favourable for pulses."

Chand pointed out that pulses are not like edible oil that can be imported in big quantity from outside the country as pulses are available in international markets in small quantities.

Asked whether the government was considering a reduction in import duty on edible oils, he said the main reason for the increase in edible oils prices is the rise in international rates, and it's not that India's output is low.

"I feel that if prices (of edible oils) do not come under control, then the government has a lot of a cushion, and that cushion is that duty rate on import should be reduced," Chand said.

The Niti Aayog member pointed out that whenever the price of a commodity rises, the government reduces import duty on that commodity, and when the price falls, it increases import duty.

In this year's budget, the government has put this big surcharge, which raised duty on oilseeds, to a very high level, he said, adding that many people look at only import duty, but they are not looking at effective duty.

"Though import duty on edible oils is low, in some cases, it is 10 percent, and in some other cases, it is 15 percent. But there is another 15 percent kind of thing as a surcharge, which raised the effective duty, which I would say is high in the present circumstances," Chand observed.

The Niti Aayog member asserted India or any other country for price stabilisation follows duty policy that is counter-cyclical.

"So, since international prices (of edible oils) are rising... then without affecting our farmers, you can ensure that when imports land in India, they do not land at cheaper rates... therefore, there is a scope for the government that even if they lower the duty, the landed price is not lower because international prices are high," he argued.

As per the government data, the retail prices of edible oils have risen by more than 60 percent in over a year and are adding to the woes of consumers who are already reeling under the economic distress induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

India meets 60 percent of edible oil demand through imports.

Speaking on the farm sector's growth, Chand said the agriculture sector will grow more than 3 percent in 2021-22.

The farm sector grew by 3.6 percent in the last fiscal. India's economy contracted by less-than-expected 7.3 percent in the fiscal year ended March 2021 after the growth rate picked up in the fourth quarter, just before the world's worst outbreak of coronavirus infections hit the country.

India is currently at the centre of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and from a daily case count of over 4 lakhs, the number of new COVID-19 cases are rapidly dropping.

India reported 1,14,460 new coronavirus infections, the lowest in 60 days, while the daily positivity rate further dropped to 5.62 percent, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Sunday.

Edited by Suman Singh

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