Labour crunch, low demand crippling farm sector during coronavirus lockdown

Shyam Dwivedi, a wheat grower in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district, too expects a bumper crop.
Vegetable market
Vegetable market

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI/CHANDIGARH: When rainfall in Maharashtra continued till January this year, Shivdas Patil, a chilli farmer in state’s Jalgaon district, thought that by the end of May when harvesting would end, he would laugh all the way to the bank. In normal years rainfall rarely crosses December and the yield of chilli is 15-20 quintals per acre. This year with bountiful rain he expects a bumper crop, with more than 25 quintals of yield per acre. 

Yet, Patil does not know whether to laugh or cry. That’s because it is barely mid April and harvesting is yet to peak, but the lockdown has resulted in the lack of transportation of his produce and very few buyers at mandis. “We take our produce to the market but there are hardly any buyers. The other day I sold four quintals of chilli at Rs 10 per kg. In better times I sell at Rs 30-40 per kg,” Patil said. 

Shyam Dwivedi, a wheat grower in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district, too expects a bumper crop. But unlike Patil, grain farmers such as Dwivedi who have larger land holdings are faced with another problem: lack of farm labour. Dwivedi has 40 acres of land and needs at least 50 labourers to harvest the wheat. But as most of the farm workers have left for their native places in Bihar and eastern UP, he faces the prospect of crop loss. “Scarce labour is delaying the harvesting, which we wanted to complete by April 15. Even those labourers who are available are demanding up to Rs 300 daily, which is double the normal daily wage,” Dwivedi said. 

From Kerala to Punjab, Odisha to Maharashtra, rural India is in distress owing to the lockdown, threatening to deal a body blow to the farm and allied industries sector, which accounts for over 16 per cent of India’s GDP and employing, directly and indirectly, over 40 per cent of the Indian workforce. 
The cruel irony is that farmers had been hoping to reap a rich harvest this season owing to the good rainfall, which raised the water table in even parched regions.  There is no official data on the number of migrant farm labour as it falls in the informal sector, but according to the International Labour Organisation’s estimates, which is based on Census 2011 figures, around 24 lakh migrants work in fields across India. 

‘Labour deficit states likely to face impact of shortage’

Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Punjab, said “as labourers from UP and Bihar are yet to return to cut the wheat,” they would have to depend on combine harvesters, which is expensive.

Farmers sort wheat crops after harvesting  
during the nationwide lockdown in Mathura
on Saturday | pti

Nanasaheb Patil, a former chairman of Asia’s largest onion market in Maharashtra’s Lasalgaon, also flagged the problem of lack of labour. He said the arrival of onions in the market was near normal but because there were no workers to load them on to trucks for their transportation, the supply chain was getting affected.

“Every day the market receives 15- 20,000 quintal of onion from farmers. But we are facing shortage of labour. Most of the workers here belong to the Konkan region and they have left for their native places so our produce is not reaching the cities,” Patil said.

Special efforts needed

With rabi harvesting either underway or about to begin in a few days, former Union Agriculture Secretary S K Patnaik said the Centre and state governments should consider running special buses to ease the problem of lack of migrant workers in the fields.

“If the lockdown continues rabi harvesting will be affected. Running trains may not be feasible but buses can be run after relaxing the lockdown norms,” he said.NITI Aayog adviser JP Mishra also expressed concern over the rabi crop. As a solution, he said the Punjab model could be replicated in other states. In Punjab, which along with Haryana contributes about 65% of the foodgrain for the national food security scheme, district collectors have been authorised to share the few labourers who are still in the state by rotation.

For instance, after workers have harvested the crop in Jalandhar district, they could be sent to say Ludhiana district if there is requirement for the labour there, a senior official said.“Labour deficit states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab may feel the impact more. Already, rabi harvesting is being impacted and perishable agricultural and allied products are being destroyed due to lack of transportation, demand and storage facilities,” said Sujan Hajra, chief economist at the Anand Rathi Research.

This was echoed by Saju R, a farmer in Vellayani, Thiruvananthapuram. “I am unable to sell my crops because I couldn’t harvest it on time because of the lockdown. Now I have no other option but to destroy them. I have lost Rs 90,000 because of this,” he said.

Lack of demand

The lack of demand has also hit the farmers severely. With most industrial and restaurant activity grinding to a halt, demand has crashed, resulting in prices plummeting, especially of perishable goods.
In Karnataka, a key tomato producer, mandi prices of the vegetable crashed by over 50 per cent, from Rs 1,290 a quintal last year to Rs 560 now.

Ladies finger rates are also down by nearly 40 per cent. In Punjab, green chillies, cucumber, capsicum and cabbage are lying dumped at mandis for lack of buyers.

“Retail vendors and hawkers, who sell to consumers, buy only 20 per cent of the total vegetable output. The rest 80 per cent is bought by wholesale buyers such as hotels, restaurants and caterers. But because they are shut, demand for vegetables has fallen drastically,” said Puneet Singh Thind, national director of the Vegetable Growers Association of India.

Lack of transportation

Lack of transportation has also resulted in the price crash. The Ministry of Home Affairs allowed the movement of trucks carrying agriculture and essential supplies on March 27. Subsequently it issued at least two advisories to state governments, stressing the need to keep the supply chain uninterrupted. But the reality on the ground is far different.

The All-India Motor Transport Congress said drivers face several issues because of which only a fraction of the total trucks are on the road. About 1 crore truck owners are registered with the AIMTC but only 20 per cent of them are plying.“Truckers are able to ply only one way. For instance, if a truck is transporting produce from Himachal Pradesh to Delhi, it has to come back empty. The police are stopping such trucks and they get stranded,” said Naveen Kumar Gupta, secretary general of the AIMTC.

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