Representational image for wheat | Photo: Bloomberg
Representational image for wheat | Photo: Bloomberg
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Chandigarh: Faced with an acute shortage of labour following the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, an agriculture crisis looms large over Punjab and Haryana where farmers are set to begin harvesting the wheat crop in just 10 days.

The two states together need nearly 16 lakh farm hands for harvesting and procurement, but with migrant labourers returning to their home states, and seasonal labour from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar not coming in, there is a crisis at hand, according to farmer associations.

This is apart from the fact that the activity in itself will lead to a serious breach of social distancing, putting farmers at a risk of coronavirus infections.

Vijay Kalra, president, Federation of Aarthia Associations of Punjab said, “We are looking at a very major agriculture crisis that will have an unprecedented negative impact on Punjab farmers. The seasonal labour that comes from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into Punjab during this time starting in the last week of March till the first week of April for procurement is totally missing.”

Aarthiya (commission agents) associations, an intermediary between the government and the farmers, provide labour during the procurement process.

“To make things worse, whatever labour was available has gone back to these states,” said Kalra.

Wheat harvesting in Punjab and Haryana is followed by its procurement by the government in one of the most significant annual activities in the two states beginning the first week of April. The central and state government agencies procure several lakh metric tonnes of wheat, paying farmers over Rs 46,000 crore for their crop over just a month.

In the last rabi season, more than 183 metric lakh tonnes of wheat was procured from Punjab and another 95 lakh metric tonnes was procured from Haryana, according to government data.


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The Punjab situation

Explaining the two kinds of labour used in farming, Kalra said there is permanent labour, which stays at farms and helps farmers round the year for sowing and harvesting the crops, and the seasonal migrant labour that comes from UP and Bihar only during the procurement season.

“This migrant labour is used in government-run mandis (markets) where farmers take their harvested crop for procurement. The labour is utilised for cleaning of the crop, weighing it, bagging, stitching and loading it into trucks for transportation,” said Kalra.

“In Punjab, almost 10 lakh labour is supplied by aarthias in mandis during wheat procurement. Now we have none. Given the situation in the country, we cannot expect any labour whatsoever to be available in the coming days either,” he said.

Now, farmers are being encouraged to use combine harvesters for the entire process. “Generally the use of combine harvesters is done quite optimally by farmers through village cooperative societies. Much labour is not required. (This time) the farmers will have to manage harvesting on their own,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, president Bharatiya Kisan Union-Rajewal.

Haryana struggling too

The situation isn’t any better in Haryana, where, unlike the largely-mechanised Punjab, labour is used to harvest wheat in around 25 to 30 per cent of the farms.

“This is done in order to store wheat husks for the year as animal fodder. Since labour for harvesting is not available this year, most of the work will be done through combine harvesters which will also mean that there will be no stored fodder for animals,” said Ashok Gupta, president, Aarthia Association Haryana.

“How the government is going to manage procurement in mandis is a mystery. There is no labour available. And almost 6 lakh men are needed in mandis in Haryana in this season,” he added.


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Govts suggest staggering

Wheat harvesting usually begins in the first week of April, but it has been delayed this year due to incessant rains. Farmers are likely to wait until 10 April to begin work. While Punjab has announced that it will begin procurement on 15 April, Haryana will start from 20 April.

To tide over the unprecedented crisis, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh asked the Government of India in a public statement on 27 March to help the state stagger the procurement of wheat, giving an additional incentive of a higher minimum support price.

Singh proposed to have no incentive for farmers bringing in the grain to the markets from 15 to 30 April, but Rs 100 per quintal and Rs 200 per quintal over the MSP of Rs 1,925, for those bringing in the produce in May and June, respectively.

On the same day, Haryana Chief Minister M.L. Khattar also made a press statement. According to his government’s offer, wheat procured from 15 April to 5 May will fetch the farmers the standard MSP of Rs 1,925 per quintal, from 5 to 31 May, Rs 1,975 per quintal, and 31 May onwards, Rs 2,050 per quintal.

However, the central government is yet to take a decision on the matter, said Gupta.


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No storage space with farmers

Gupta, however, added that even if farmers decide to stagger the crop procurement they have no storage space with them.

“Like most of the other states in India, farmers in Haryana and also in Punjab used to store wheat at home before taking it to the mandis for sale, but now the process is so streamlined that after harvesting the crop it is directly taken to the mandis,” he said.

While Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal has urged the Punjab government to distribute gunny bags to farmers to store the wheat in their premises, Kalra said, “This is not a workable solution. First, there is no space to store so much wheat. And in two months the wheat will start rotting or be infested with insects.”

Govts search for solutions

The two state governments are already holding meetings almost every day to find a solution to the problem.

“The government is considering the possibility of shifting construction labour into mandis for procurement since construction activity across the state is totally stopped. Secondly, in order to avoid overcrowding in the mandis, farmers will be given tokens with numbers on them and they will bring their crop accordingly,” said Kalra.

Vishwajeet Khanna, additional chief secretary development, Punjab, said the state will have staggered procurement in mandis.

“We are devising a method by which only a limited number of farmers are allowed to bring their produce in the mandi on any given day. We are also hopeful that by the time procurement starts the Government of India would consider a proposal of incentivising farmers favourably,” said Khanna.

Haryana additional chief secretary, agriculture and cooperation, Sanjeev Kaushal said the government will make sure that the movement of combine harvesters remains smooth during the harvesting period. “Labour could be a problem but we are in the process of finding solutions to it,” he said.
The state’s additional chief secretary for food and civil supplies, P.K. Das, pointed out that since procurement is going to begin only after 20 April, labour is expected to come back as the lockdown would be lifted by then.
“Also at some places aarthiyas have retained their labour and we have asked them to provide them with free lodging and food,” he said.

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