COVID-19 and subsistence farmers

A look at how COVID-19 impacted subsistence farmers and how small-plot vegetable cultivation can support them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again bought the marginalized sections of the society to the forefront of India’s economic & livelihoods crisis. The effect of COVID-19 on the migrant labourers, the most vulnerable section of Indian society, has been devastating. As the country came to grinding halt due to the lock-down, so did the lives of these labourers. Construction, tourism and hospitality are some of the key sectors where migrant labourers work. Looking at the nature of COVID-19, the revival of demand for tourism and hospitality might not happen anytime soon. Also, the economic slowdown will affect the wages in construction sector. Therefore, for migrant labourers walking back to their homes, returning and finding profitable employment soon seems highly impossible.

Of these 100 million migrant labourers, the number of subsistence farmers is sizeable. Fall in the farm incomes, and rise in debts has turned the agriculture less and less profitable for small & marginal farmers. They practice subsistence farming (cereal cultivation) during crop season and migrate to other states as wage labourers in the off-crop season to ensure the livelihood security for their families throughout the year. As the profitable migration opportunities available post the pandemic are going to be less, it is good time to plan for and engage subsistence farmers and migrant labourers in other profitable ventures. Agriculture has the potential to revive the livelihoods of this class of society.

For example, in states like Bihar which adds many people to the migrant labour population on one-hand and is also blessed with abundant natural resources like fertile land and availability of water on the other, interventions in agriculture could enhance the incomes and ensure the livelihood security.


Small-plot vegetable cultivation in a minimum of half acre land, either owned or leased will give desired results. A smaller crop-to-cultivation period (750-120 days), and lucrativeness of selling vegetables (Rs.8000 per acre/per month on an average) make small-plot vegetable cultivation a good bet. The following are some aspects that need to be considered for successful implementation of small-plot vegetable cultivation model for seasonal migrants and agri-labourers:

  1. Intense vegetable cultivation through high-yielding varieties
  2. Usage of Mineral Fertilizers and Plant Protection Chemicals (PPC’s)
  3. Using low-cost irrigation solutions
  4. Using Market-intelligence based cropping system for decisions on crop selection, quantity of production, etc.
  5. Good market access

Any NGOs’ which are working in handling livelihood concerns of the rural population can help the migrants to go for such opportunity and closely work with them in the areas listed above.


The Three-Pronged Strategy

Discouraging Migration: Cash-starved subsistence farmers and migrant labourers tend to migrate to urban areas in search of wage employment at the immediately available opportunity. But, since the construction, travel, tourism and hospitality industries in urban areas have been affected severely by COVID-19 and are unlikely to resume and reach ‘normal’ in the near future; most of the migrant labourers are unlikely to get gainful employment. Providing financial support will encourage them to take-up profitable ventures like vegetable cultivation and will discourage them from migrating.

Productively engaging subsistence farmers & migrant labourers: The only means of easing this impending crisis is to find ways of ensuring that farmers remain in their villages with a livelihood security that can meet the needs of their household cost of living. This could be done by intensifying soil and water conservation activities in the next three months under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), encouraging growing vegetable crops under intense vegetable cultivation model through high yielding varieties, and promoting use of low-cost irrigation solutions for better yield.

Providing income enhancement support: Assisting in choosing crops which are not prone to price volatilities and give assured returns through market intelligence data from the past 5 years will ensure stable returns on the investment. Supporting by giving them better market access through activities like direct customer connect or aggregation of produce and bulk-buying partnerships will enhance the amount realized.

Final Words

A crisis not only creates problems but also shows many opportunities. This is one such opportunity, that if acted upon well can turn a boon to many vulnerable families. The intervention stated above can promise livelihood security, food security and nutrition security to many families. The civil society organizations can work with these vulnerable communities to build a livelihood security in these tough times by collaborating with the Government, Donors (CSR & Philanthropy), and Technical support institutions (SAUs, KVKs) to create impact at scale.


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