Chandigarh: Ahead of harvest, farmers worried about labour and procurement

Every year, Punjab employs around 10 lakh migrant labourers to carry out the market operations during Rabi harvest. These labourers generally come in late March and stay on till June to complete the transplantation of paddy.

Apprehension grips the agricultural heartland of Punjab as the new Rabi crop waits to be harvested. Labour shortage in the farms due to the coronavirus lockdown is, of course, a major worry. Farmers are clueless on what is in store for them, once harvest begins on April 15th, the date fixed by the state government.

“I have not faced conditions of this nature in my entire life, nothing is sure anymore,” said Jagseer Sandhwan, a farmer owning 15 acres of land in Sandhwan village of Faridkot district. The government has set a procurement price of Rs 1925 per quintal for wheat this season.

In Punjab, wheat is largely harvested using combine harvesters. The machine cuts and processes the wheat stalks, separates the grain from husk, and deposits the grains into a tractor trolley which farmers take to the market. “This doesn’t require much labour, only two to three people apart from the driver can handle the field harvesting operations,” said Sardara Singh Johl, a prominent agricultural economist and Chancellor of Central University of Punjab. But the problem is that most of the harvesters are stuck in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan and may not be available in Punjab on time because of the transport shutdown, even though farm labour and related farm activities and necessities have been exempted from the lockdown.

In the wheat procurement process, labour is needed at the local market for unloading, cleaning, packing into gunny bags, storage and loading into trucks for transport to FCI godowns. The usual seasonal migrant labor who performed these tasks under the supervision of the commission agent and a government inspector, who records the weight of the produce for fixing payment to the farmer, is not available this year.  “The markets are mostly dependent on migrant labour from UP and Bihar,” said Gaurav Bansal, a Faridkot-based commission agent or arhitya.

In mandis across the state, every commission agent normally engages the same set of labourers every year.  Most Arhityas say that migrant labourers have shown no interest in coming back this year. “They are gripped by a fear psychosis. They see their mates on the road without any support systems in place and they start imagining themselves in the same situation. The few who stayed back, too, are thinking of going back,” said a prominent Ludhiana-based arhitya.

Every year Punjab employs around 10 lakh migrant labourers to carry out the market operations during Rabi harvest. These labourers generally come in late March and early April and usually stay on  to complete the transplantation of paddy in June, when they are joined by more of their compatriots. “If steps are not taken to address the labour shortage, paddy sowing will be affected,” said Johl. “Punjab has done maximum mechanisation of agriculture, but planting paddy remains a labour intensive process” .

This year, the paddy season is set to begin from June 10th. If conditions get back to normal by then, it is hoped the migrant labor will return. “But nothing is certain,” said Baljit Singh Kang, an entrepreneur and farmer. “We hope it gets sorted out otherwise, we won’t be able to grow paddy this year.

Punjab is known as the granary of India, producing an average of over 16 million tonnes of wheat every year accounting for 36 per cent of the total wheat production in the country. It also produces 26 per cent of the country’s rice production.  The state is spread over 5.036 million hectares, of which 4.023 million hectares is used for agriculture. As per 2011 Census, out of the total workforce of 9,89, 7362, over 3.5 lakh people are engaged in agriculture. Agriculture and allied activities account for 31 per cent of the state’s GDP (2011 census).

Systemic issues under the spotlight

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the weak spots of agriculture in Punjab. These include too much reliance on migrant labour, overdependence on the wheat-paddy crop cycle, lack of diversification, weak marketing mechanism, and absence of value addition through food processing.

“Farmers in general are ready to diversify, grow other crops, but we have a weak marketing system,” added another farmer Gurtej Buwal. “The Mandi Board needs to be reorganized and restructured to make this feasible.”

Johl, a strong votary of crop diversification said: “This is an unprecedented situation and moving forward we will need to take a closer look at these things but Abhi toh life bachani hai (now we have to save our lives)”.

So what is the way out for now? Johl says that the government needs to facilitate staggered arrival of wheat to the markets. “The flow of crop into the market will be slow this time,” said Johl who owns around 50 acres of land and plans to store the crop at his premises before taking it to the market.  “People who can hold it back should do so. This will avoid overcrowding in the mandis”.

But a majority of small farmers, the average land holding in Punjab being 5 to 7 acres, may not be able to store the crop as they cannot afford the double transport cost of first taking the crop to the storage place and then again to the market, unless the government compensates them for this. Organising themselves into small cooperatives is a viable option for such small farmers to overcome the labour problems and address their need for loans and machinery.

Most farmers Citizen Matters spoke to said the government needs to encourage migrant labourers to stay put by ensuring their needs are met. Said Jagseer Sandhwan: “Government should organise special trains for them from UP and Bihar. They should be tested free of cost for Coronavirus and then be allowed to join farmers in Punjab. Agriculture in Punjab is not possible without migrant laborers as local youth are unwilling to do the kind of manual work done by these laborers.

The Punjab Government, however, is confident that the harvest and procurement process will be a smooth one. “We will make sure that not even a single stalk of wheat is left out of the procurement process,” said Punjab Agriculture Secretary Kahan Singh Pannu. The state has written to the Centre for funds to incentivise farmers to bring their crop late to the markets to ensure a staggered procurement process.

Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, however, downplays the labour issue. “We have taken effective steps, which includes transfer of Rs 3000 per month in March and April into the bank accounts of 3.5 lakh construction workers, to stem the flow of labourers from the state,” said the CM. “Very few migrant labourers have left the state and  Punjab has nine lakh migrant labourers to carry out the wheat procurement process.” The state government had earlier directed the district Deputy Commissioners to ensure migrant labourers remained where they were. The government had also allowed factories manufacturing non-essential goods and brick kilns operators to start operations provided they give free food and lodging to their workers.

The State Agriculture and Food Departments is also preparing a plan to procure wheat from the farmers’ doorstep in villages located more than 1-2 kilometres from mandis. The Arhityas, who handle the procurement in mandis could do so in the fields itself. “Around 50 per cent of villages are located close to the Mandis and curfew passes could be issued to farmers to go to the Mandis to regulate the numbers,” said Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh. Besides, the state plans to engage MGNREGA workers to make up for the labour shortage, and make up for the shortage of jute bags with polypropylene bags.

The government expects to procure 18 million tonnes of wheat this year.

But while the proposed steps look good on paper, the fate of Punjab farmers will depend, according to Johl, “on how the entire thing is managed by the government”.

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