NAGAPATTINAM: It’s that time of the year, when farmers in the Delta districts prepare for Kharif sowing, at least those who have the groundwater resources. A couple of years ago around this time, the fields around Mayiladuthurai would have enough water stagnating in them to make them look like shallow pools. People would wade in ankle-deep water, busy transplanting paddy saplings. Now, machines have replaced men and women, thanks to the pandemic.
As a result, farmworkers have been hit hard. “For 40 years, I toiled in fields,” recalls 60-year-old P Kamala of Arasur. “This year, there has been no work invites so far. Nor do I get work in the MGNREGS programme. I am dependent on the Rs 100 or so daily income that I earn by making mats.” If her distress is symptom of a larger trend, there could be a significant migration to cities that are already busting at their seams.
“Mechanisation might push these farm-hands to urban centres. However, the pandemic has diminished their prospects in urban places, too. Over 75 per cent of farm labourers are without MGNREGS works as well. The Centre has not announced any relief this year. It is about time they step in and save livelihoods” says V Ramalingam, a representative of Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union. Further, hiring farmhands is considered an expensive affair these days. Farmers pay men about Rs 450 to Rs 500 and women about Rs 150 to Rs 200 a day during the cultivation.
That apart, they need to arrange for food and refreshments for the labourers as well. The big farmers have started to realise that using machinery would optimise their expenditure.
“Farm machinery such as transplanters, tillers, and harvesters can save as much as 50 to 70 per cent expenditure in farm works. They suffer fewer damages while harvesting crops. It also relieves farmers from the stress of looking after workers and arranging for their needs,” said ‘Kaaviri’ V Dhanabalan, a representative from Kaaviri Vivasaayigal Paathukaapu Sangam.
The MGNREGS was a saviour for farmworkers, for it gave them an additional source of revenue. The scheme currently guarantees a daily wage of Rs 256.
According to the rural development department, the integrated Nagapattinam district has the largest number of farm labourers in the State. It once used to attract the most number of ‘man-days’. It had to reduce the number of person- days as the Covid guideline says people above 55 years of age and those with comorbidities cannot be employed. The second wave is surging in the coastal district. The restrictions in place and the worsening pandemic has also caused concerns among the farming community.
The livelihoods were hit more severely last year when there was a lockdown. There were not any MGNREGS works for a couple of months then. The rural development officials say it is not as bad this year.
“Currently, we have taken up individual work requirements, and channel desilting works. There would be some social distancing in the workplace in those sorts of work. But, we have made the difficult decision to reduce the number of person-days as per the guideline. We used to employ 40,000 to 50,000 man-days a day in over 800 clusters during this time of the year. We have reduced it to about 10,000 man-days in around 300 clusters,” MS Prasanth added.
The story becomes a bit different and more aggravating for farmworkers in the southern parts of the coastal delta. The groundwater is largely saline. So the farmers wait till June for the arrival of Cauvery water to cultivate paddy. Kuruvai farm works would also begin after that. So, they rely on MGNREGS till June.
After the number of work and workforce has been reduced, the labourers have lost livelihoods. K Seppaan, a 60-year-old farmworker from Periyavadakuveli near Thirukkuvalai, says, “I used to do any kind of farm work for years. Then, I started to work in the Rs 100 day work scheme’ after it was introduced. But, since they have said I cannot work due to my age now, I cannot make a living. There is a lack of farm work around my place at this period. I have no idea what we are going to do.”
The farmworkers are looking up to the government to provide them relief from the distress caused by the pandemic and loss of livelihoods.