The global pandemic around COVID-19 has meant that governments, scientists and civil society have come together to ensure that there is co-ordinated and much-needed response, especially for those most at need. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) as an institution that works harnesses science for sustainable development especially among rural communities, has a mandate of a pro-poor, pro-nature and pro-women approach. Working across different agro-ecological zones in India, MSSRF has responded quickly to the COVID-19 emergency, providing support at the field level to rural communities and also facilitating situation assessments to provide policy recommendations.
The government of India issued special guidelines for movement of goods and activities related to agriculture, which was followed up by the various states. Some of these relaxations were announced soon after the lockdown, and some came into effect later. This provided much-needed relief for movement of agricultural produce as well as for farming activities. It also enabled some market and movement connect especially for perishable commodities. The same was for fishing, which was initially restricted across the coastal areas, with subsequently some amount of relaxations, providing interim relief to the marine fishers’ livelihood; overall these relaxations were targeted at easing lives of the rural population. The government also provided a relief package and food rations through the Public Distribution System – with varying components across states.
However, these measures have not resolved all the concerns. Issues regarding non-availability of transport to move agricultural produce to procurement and processing centresbesides closure of markets, input dealers and non-movement of labourers, compounded the problem for farmers and fishers. There were also differentiations between small and marginal farmers with or without transport and small-scale fishers versus larger fishers in relation to the hardships faced. Also, most affected are the labourers across the value chains from production to marketing, losing valuable daily income.
In the states where major interventions are happening with farming and fishing communities, MSSRF carried out systematic assessments with the communities, while also interacting with other stakeholders including scientific fraternity, government institutions besides market and corporate entities. The results of these assessments have been summarized into a series of emerging policy briefs, with more expected in due course. Through the series of policy papers the institution aims to advocate with the government on concerns related to the lives and livelihoods of these communities. Each of these briefs contains a series of recommendations relevant to that particular sector for the notice of policy makers.
- Agriculture policy brief: A consolidated assessment of the farmers and farming scenario across Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and Odisha – this situation assessment captures the existing scenario across different crops, various concerns and looks at field-level initiatives that are ongoing. Sections include i) marketing of produce, ii) plight of labourers iii) effect on standing and next crop iv) debt v) dairy and vi) poultry. It makes a series of 12 recommendations for this situation in the immediate and mid-term especially for the most marginalized landless labourers, women-headed households and marginal farmers.
- Fisheries policy brief: An assessment of marine fisheries along the east coast of India provides an overview of the lockdown on fisheries along with an impending annual fishing ban soon after. It contains a series of six recommendations including differentiating between the pandemic and the regular fishing restrictions and providing support to protect their livelihood.
- Floriculture policy brief: With small farmers in Tamil Nadu – one of the largest producers of loose flowers in India – badly affected by the lockdown and no market demand, the floriculture assessment, provides five recommendations including focusing on plant and soil health, providing mix and inter-cropping besides connecting to factories and extraction units.
Through COVID-19 emergency, MSSRF also engaged in awareness among the communities in all sites where it is working – across Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala, Odisha and Assam. These ranged from physical demonstrations before lockdown to virtual, ICT-based and other awareness including on physical distancing, personal hygiene and other guidelines as per the recommended protocol. Besides COVID-related advisories, scientists also provided farm-health based advisories. These are captured in some of the links below.
- Our efforts to support on the field – https://www.mssrf.org/content/supporting-efforts-combat-coronavirus#
- Field awareness support – https://www.mssrf.org/content/lockdown-support-farmers-dial-agri-experts-help
Public awareness and information dissemination
In addition, MSSRF actively shared and promoted COVID-19-related information especially of relevance to the farming / fishing sectors on popular media, the website and on social media. These were widely read and shared by different stakeholders including project partners, government representatives, other scientific and research organizations and members of the general public. As a service, awareness and research material was also collated on the web.
COVID-19 awareness material – https://www.mssrf.org/content/covid-19-resources-awareness-material-and-publications
The approximate reach across social media and e-newsletter is over 35,000 persons(Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and mailchimp) during the COVID-19 lockdown and there was related media coverage in prominent mainstream newspapers and publications. Some of these links are also shared here:
Two positive announcements came along with our media advocacy. Fishing relaxation was announced soon after our media release on relief for fishers was published in various media. Also, the Tamil Nadu government announced procurement of flowers to connect to factories, a day after our article on flower growers was published. While these were policy decisions, our media outputs coming out before the announcements, helped build momentum for these issues in the public and policy space, for a positive outcome.
- Over 490 villageshave been reached across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry and Assam.
- Over 81 staff engaged in field-based and virtual support across all locations
- Over 52,500 community members were reached virtually and directly with awareness messages and services across the states
- Activities included awareness materials distribution, virtual data collection, advisories on pest and disease, limited field visits, photo documentation, connecting farmers and fishers to markets, seed procurement, connecting to income, linkage and information to government schemes
- In multiple locations, marketing, input and support to link to government schemes has been provided to communities across the different states of intervention.
- Series of non-contact support initiatives including audio advisories, voice SMS, phone-in programs and e-plant clinics were organized using innovative approaches to help farmers in lockdown
Specific responses on the field
- In several locations, MSSRF helped procure farm produce and fish directly or through collectives and connected with the market and buyers. This helped preventing loss and supporting livelihoods at a critical time.
- The Nutrition Garden in MSSRF’s Wayand regional centre was a great help to distantly located tribal hamlets with supply of essential vegetables and fruits during lockdown.
- Phone advisories were provided to farmers across multiple locations for plant and farm health and various concerns. As an innovation, farmers also connected on webinars. Over 350 farmers participated in four special phone-in programmes with more than 80 per cent of queries related to pest and disease management and another animal husbandry program resolved over 150 livestock producers’ queries.
- The Fisher Friend Mobile Application with several thousand subscribers along the coast, was very handy in providing targeted messaging and COVID awareness at this time.
- Over 10,000 masks were produced by the women’s federation at Puducherry to support the government prevention efforts at this time.
- In Kerala, 20 litres of hand sanitizer produced in-house was handed over to the district administration and the production method was demonstrated to various departments including the district Collectorate, Excise department and the District Medical Authority for bulk production; training on reusable mask making was given to communities.
- Preparation of various awareness material for fishing, fish farming activities circulated to farmer and fisher families through whatsapp, mobile apps and village knowledge centres; special meetings were held at the Village Knowledge Centres prior to the lock down in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Odisha and Assam.
- Need-based support for inputs for farmers for the coming season is being provided through linking with the farmer producer organizations input stores
- Support initiatives were held in partnership with stakeholders including the village panchayats, the Indian Medical Association, NABARD, and Tamil Nadu Science Forum
- Appropriate video learning materials in the local language have also been initiated for the forthcoming seasons
The work continues and based on the felt-need in the field, the institution is responding and also connecting to policy makers to facilitate a change.