COVID-19: Food and agriculture in Goa

We are investigating how food and agriculture are being impacted by the coronavirus crisis and lockdown in Goa

On March 24th, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nation-wide lockdown as a response to the spread of the coronavirus: from March 25th, all non-essential services were suspended for 21 days. The lockdown was extended, and it continued nation-wide for approximately 68 days and will continue in containment zones till June 30. We are now in Phase 5 or ‘Unlock 1’. As part of our Future of Work and Sustainable Goa initiatives, we are investigating how labour in Goa is being impacted by the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown. This is the COVID 19: Goa series.

Goa, as a state, was ill-equipped for the lockdown. Before the lockdown announcement, information that all grocery stores would remain closed during the initial 21 days was circulated; this resulted in the panic buying of supplies by locals and a consequent food shortage. Many were left without options for food. Stores were closed, and while the state government mentioned that specific shops would be designated and be allowed to function/deliver essentials, these stores were not able to stock up on supplies before the lockdown was implemented. It took a few days before a chain of supplies to restock stores was established. This experience has led both citizens and the state government to turn their attention to making Goa food self-sufficient.

In a similar situation as Goa, Bhutan faced a food shortage after India’s lockdown as the borders were closed as the usual supply of meats and vegetables that the country imports from India were stopped. However, the leaders of the country used this as an opportunity to reduce their dependence on imported food and encourage locally grown food to supplement the loss. They are also refocusing their efforts to support local farmers shift to more independent and self-sufficient models of farming.

Goa grows rice and cashew, along with ragi, maize, jowar, bajra and pulses. Other cash crops that grow in the state include coconut, arecanut, mango, jackfruit, banana and pineapple. There have also been efforts recently to cultivate sugarcane, and a sugar factory has been established. Currently, Goa doesn’t produce enough to sustain itself and has to depend on Karnataka and Maharashtra to fulfil its needs.

Much of the land along the coast has high saline levels, and while this type of soil can be used for a few cash crops such as coconuts, in general, harder to cultivate. Workers are also an issue in Goa, with the state having to depend on migrant workers to work on farms. Parts of the local population prefers to work in more profitable industries such as the now-defunct mining industry and the tourism industry or stay unemployed. Due to the lockdown, the state has seen the declining tourism industry come to a standstill.

The lockdown did, however, come with a few lessons. Shalini Krishnan, the co-founder of Edible Archives spoke to Tandem about her experiences with farmers and growing communities in Goa as well as local and indigenous food sources.

Edible Archives collects indigenous edible seeds from all over India. As they are currently based in Goa most of their indigenous and heritage crops are from the Western Ghats – primarily rice varieties.

However, with the lockdown and a break in the food supply chain, Edible Archives has been focusing on indigenous food sources including herbs, chillies, amaranths of different kinds, edible parts of tubers such as the leaves of sweet potato and the flowers, leaves and tendrils of the pumpkin plant.

The lockdown has affected farming in multiple ways, Edible Archives found. With migrant labour unavailable to work the fields, they found among the farmers that they worked with that this had severely affected the planting and harvesting cycle. This, in turn, had led to a shortage of food among the farmers with some then even attempting to harvest crops that were not ready.

While many farmers can work and maintain their farms on their own for most of the year, during these cycles, labour becomes crucial. Agriculture is time-dependent, especially in the case of soft foods like fruit. Goa is currently in the rice planting season and farmers are facing a shortage of labour either because of social distancing norms or because a lot of the workers they trust have left. This year, due to the shortage of labour, cashew apple for feni was also not harvested or distilled in time, and the estimated loss of revenue stands at 70% of the Rs 450 crores from the feni industry.

To address this issue, a ‘Local Food Ecosystems’ webinar was hosted by Ideas for Goa where experts looked at suggested interventions to resurrect the farming sector. They released a document on possible approaches that can help the situation here.

The State Government has said it is looking to boost agriculture and double the income of farmers by 2022. There has also been a push from locals to restore the khazans, a traditional system of canals and gates that control the flow of water during the monsoons. What will also need to be addressed is the labour shortage that the agriculture sector in Goa is facing today.

The publication was first published by the authors under auspices of erstwhile Tandem Research.

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