Lucknow: Farmers in Uttar Pradesh are struggling to cope with a lack of labour during the harvest season that has come about right in the midst of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
This is the peak sugarcane and wheat harvesting season in the state.
The farmers, who were already worried about a significant loss of crop after unseasonal rain and hailstorms in February and March, have to now contend with labour shortage to harvest the remaining crop.
Umesh Kumar is a farmer in Kankaha village of Lucknow district. His standing wheat crop is ready for harvesting, but no labourers are available apparently due to the fear of coronavirus.
“It is not possible to harvest the crop alone or even with the help of 2-3 people in the village. Everyone is worried about own crop,” Kumar said, speaking to ThePrint.
He added that the presence of police personnel was further intimidating the little labour that is available in the village.
“Police personnel often visit fields to ensure social distancing. They are right to do so, but most of the villagers are scared by their presence. How will they then perform agrarian work?” Kumar asked.
He said the lockdown woes have come on the back of unseasonal rain in February and March that already damaged their crops.
With reverse migration taking place, many labourers are back in villages from cities that they left due to lack of work as most establishments giving them employment are now shut. However, these migrants are not available immediately for farm labour as the government has placed under quarantine all those coming from outside.
Combine harvesters of no use
Even those relying on mechanised farming are struggling as there are no operators for combine harvesters.
“Due to the lockdown, the owners of the combine harvesters are not being able to call the drivers and foremen from other states,” said Sandeep Kumar of Sukhlal Khera village in the capital district. “Every year, operators are called from Punjab to run these harvesters, but as of now they are unable to come. Due to this lack of labour, other important jobs such as weeding, hoeing and irrigating the crops are also not being done.”
He added that if the wheat crop is not harvested within a week, the grains might drop in the fields.
According to Suresh Chandra, a resident of Nagaram village, the lack of manual labour is also affecting the harvesting of other important crops such as mustard and peas. “The green vegetables planted in the field are also getting wasted,” he said.
The farmers also fear that stray cattle may attack their crop. “My family members stop me from going to farms due to the fear of coronavirus. But if I do not go, stray animals may ruin the crop,” said Raju Singh, who lives at Purvanwa village in Unnao district.
Potential labour quarantined
The state government has quarantined migrant labourers returning home, some of whom could have worked in the fields. The quarantine centres are primary schools in villages that have been set up to screen the migrants for Covid-19. Those arriving in the state have to spend 14 days at the isolation centres before they can enter the villages.
“Several labourers from other states including Delhi and Punjab had come for the harvest season but they have also been quarantined,” said Shivpujan of Kanakaha village.
Raising the issue, state Congress president Ajay Lallu said the farmers of UP are facing a “double whammy” due to the coronavirus crisis. “On the one side, they are facing the worst impact of lockdown and on the other, the sword of debt recovery is also hanging over their heads,” he said. “The state government must announce a complete loan waiver for the farmers. They should also be compensated for losses occurred during the lockdown period.”
Providing assistance, says Yogi govt
The Yogi Adityanath-led government in the state has been insisting it has been providing support to farmers. Cabinet Minister (Jal Shakti) Mahendra Singh told ThePrint that the government is concerned about the farmers’ woes and has, hence, allowed the farmers to work in their fields during the lockdown while maintaining social distancing.
“The government is also making arrangements related to other important issues including procurement of (entire) crops at the minimum support price (MSP),” he said.
The state government has also promised to procure 2.64 lakh metric tonnes of mustard, 2.01 lakh metric tonnes of chickpea (gram) and 1.21 lakh metric tonnes of lentils from the farmers at MSP. The procurement will be completed in 90 days, the government said in a statement.
Sources in the Yogi government also said exemptions have been granted to shops and production facilities related to key agrarian inputs such as fertilisers, seeds and pesticides to ”ensure smooth operation of the manufacturing and supply chains”.