Sunday, 29 January, 2023

Food, Farmers And COVID-19

Namrata Sharma


As the COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire across South Asia, farmers have planted their summer crops despite grappling with financial burdens, labour issues and the threat of floods. Asar 15 is the rice planting day in Nepal and this was celebrated by farmers by planting rice and hoping for a good harvest so that there is no food deficiency. According to the Third Pole Net, with the advent of the southwest monsoon in most parts of South Asia, farmers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have started planting the summer crops.
The COVID-19 has already affected more than a million people in these four countries, with infections rising fast in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as per the latest data. South Asia has been severely affected from the lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and with growth shrinking in the industrial and service sectors, hope is now pinned on adequate monsoon rainfall and a good harvest to breathe life back into the battered economy.

Financial stress
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Nepal, like other South Asian countries, has witnessed the mass return of migrant workers to fragile mountain communities. Without the money previously sent home, rural households have the double financial stress of extra mouths to feed and disrupted supply chains. According to International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), food security in the mountains has been a matter of concern, with agricultural productivity in steady decline over several years. This is the main reason for high out-migration as many households have depended on remittances to lift them out of poverty and food insecurity. With remittances drying up and disruptions in supply chains as a result of the lockdowns, food insecurity has come back to haunt the mountain households. Many also fear a slide back into poverty. With access to essential food items seriously compromised, the present situation highlights the inadequacy of existing food access and distribution mechanisms, and raises questions about the preparedness for ensuring food and nutritional security for mountain communities in the aftermath of the pandemic.
The pandemic has made me reflect back to the early 2000s when I went to Humla in the Himalayan range. “We now harvest only one quintal of wheat in the same area where we used to harvest two quintals,” said Hari of Ward no 4, Dandaphaya Village Development Committee. He continued to add to my limited knowledge of the real impact of global warming and climate change on people living up in the Himalayas by narrating his personal experiences. He said during his grandfather’s days they used to have snow up to nine feet; during his growing-up days they used to have snow up to three to five feet, but now it was less than three feet. 
As a layperson, I thought that this must have made life easier for them as they would have less difficulty moving around. Hari smiled and mentioned that although the heat had increased and the snow level had gone down, it actually had an adverse effect on their livelihood and lifestyle. At that altitude, cold weather conditions are far more suitable for agriculture and harvesting. 

The main crops the farmers grow in Humla are wheat, potato, chuli, dhatelo, khamu, and okhar. While earlier they also grew Phapar (buckwheat), now it was getting increasingly difficult to do so. In fact, the production of crops had decreased and the size of the potato had become smaller. Chuli, dhatelo, khamu and okhar were grown for their nutritional value and the oil from these products would be enough for the entire village. The oil would further be sold at Simkot-headquarters of Humla district- for Rs. 50 per litre. However, as the production of the local oil decreased drastically, they were forced to buy ‘Dhara’ brand oil from Simkot at Rs. 300 per litre. 
Dandaphaya VDC of Humla district is at an altitude of around 3,500 metres above sea level up in the Himalayas. During a visit to this VDC recently, the dominant community there were the Dalits, including Sunar, Kami, and Bisworkarma. The government has categorised the population into four types based on food sufficiency: the Ka are people who have less than three months of food sufficiency; the Kha people have food sufficiency from three to six months, Ga are people who have food sufficiency from six to one year and Gha are people who have more than one year’s food sufficiency. The people I met at the Dandaphaya VDC all belonged to the Ka category. They have only one harvest per year of wheat or buckwheat, potato, barley, millet, peaches, apple, chuli, and herbs including attis, satuwa, padam and chalu. 

Nutritional crops
The villagers informed me then that their VDC would earlier be covered with snow for about eight months a year, but now it was covered with snow for barely six months. Their forefathers had been healthier as compared to them, although awareness about cleanliness and distribution of important medicines had increased recently. They attributed their forefathers’ better health to a diet of crops like buckwheat and millet, which have high nutritional values. Humla district is one of the most remote districts in Karnali. The COVID-19 pandemic has made me reflect on the research I did there in the early 2000 and has kept me wondering how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their lives.

(Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights activist. Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)