COVID lockdown forces cash-strapped villagers in MP to adopt barter

Families of small, marginal farmers exchange wheat for essential due to plunge in procurement price

During the lockdown, items like edible oil, biscuits, tea, soap, and namkeen (dry snacks) are moving fast. Photo: Shahroz Afridi

Usually, the stock of wheat at Pushpendra Vishwakarma’s grocery store goes down. But in the last few weeks, it has increased tremendously. Many other shops in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh have witnessed the same. Plunge in the procurement price of wheat and no cash in hand has left families of small and marginal farmers in the region to barter wheat for other essentials.

“I have been left with no other option as most of my regular customers are left with no cash. They offer me wheat instead of products they want,” says Vishwakarma of Pahadi Khurd village of Tikamgarh district. He even cites an example of how the barter works. “I sell sugar at ₹45 a kg and wheat at ₹15 a kg. So, I give 1 kg of sugar for 3 kg of wheat,” he says. About 80% of his clients have been exchanging wheat to shop other things.

The shop is open for about 4-5 hours daily and sees a footfall of 30-40 customers. During the lockdown, items like edible oil, biscuits, tea, soap, and namkeen (dry snacks) are moving fast, he says.

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A farmer in the same village, Narayan Das had cultivated rabi (wheat) crop in his 3-acre land that yielded about 35 quintals this year. “Due to the lockdown, I am unable to sell the crop,” he says. Local merchants have been offering to buy the crop at ₹1,400-1,500 a quintal against the government-set minimum selling price (MSP) of ₹2,025, adds Das.

Moreover, the state government hasn’t started setting up wheat procurement centres, which take around two to three weeks to release the payment. “As we are left with no cash, we have been bartering wheat for essential things,” he says. Adding to the woes, women are unable to withdraw their money deposited in Jan Dhan accounts as the banks are around 10 km far. “Police aren’t allowing us to move out,” says a villager.

Head of a five-member family, Bharat Ahirwar had been harvesting wheat for a few farmers on a contract basis. The farmers used to pay him some cash and wheat for the work. But now they have given him 5 quintals of wheat and no cash. “So, I have been buying essentials in exchange for some wheat and retaining a huge amount of it to sell later at the right price,” he says.

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Other villages like Bhagwantpura, Srinagar, Kanganpurva and Durgapura in the Tikamgarh district have also been following the barter system to meet their daily needs. Residents of many villages in the bordering Sagar district have been replicating the model. The villages include Khapa, Chameli, Naunpur, Rabra, Kukwara and Dungariya.

Pramod Sahu, a grocery shop owner in Bobai village of the Sagar district, says farmers don’t have cash as wheat procurement hasn’t started. “Had mandis been open, the cash flow in the village would have diffused the liquidity problem,” he says. Sahu says he has been buying wheat at ₹15-16 a kg and selling groceries accordingly. Till date, he has accumulated around 7-8 quintals of wheat through the barter system.

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People of Bobai too have been facing the issues in cash withdrawal. Gorelal Sen took his mother on a bicycle to Barodia village, which is about 8 km far, to withdraw her pension of ₹1200 for two months. “I had waited at the bank for about three hours, but was told that the server was down. So, I had to return empty-handed,” he says. “Another bank kiosk at Bambhori village, which is about 4 km far from Barodia, was closed.

Farmers have also been facing difficulties in harvesting crops. Vinod Tiwari, who has 50 acres of farmland, has given his labourers two options. “Either get the wage when the crop is sold or take wheat in exchange,” he says.

Lilabai Ahirwar, Sarpanch of Hadli gram panchayat in Sagar district, says the economy of the village has gone for a toss due to the lockdown. “We have been facing various problems in gaining access to the money that the government had transferred in bank accounts.” Therefore, we too have adopted the barter system, he says.

(With inputs from Anupam Pateria)

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