Kolkata: Flight of labourers to their homes following the 21-day nationwide lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on loading and unloading of agricultural produce at storage facilities in West Bengal, raising concerns over a possible crisis in the supply chain in near future.
Chief advisor to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on agricultural marketing, Pradip Kumar Majumdar, admitted that there is a dearth of labourers at cold storages and godowns as their family members are calling them back owing to the prevailing situation.
Yes, there is a crisis. But we cannot stop them (from going home). We have asked cold storage owners to talk to the labourers who are working for them and convince them to stay back,” he told PTI.
Majumdar said the government has asked the owners of cold storages and godowns to provide the labourers with masks and gloves.
“We have asked cold storage owners to take all precautionary measures to protect the labourers,” Majumdar said.
He, however, asserted that the situation was under control saying, “We are monitoring the situation and will take necessary measures as the situation evolves.
Majumdar said 85 per cent of potatoes produced have been transported to cold storages from fields.
With the nationwide lockdown in place, movement of trucks carrying essential commodities is also being hampered owing to the scarcity of labourers and lack of facilities for drivers, West Bengal Truck Operators’ Association claimed.
Truckers Association general secretary Subhas Bose said loading and unloading of vegetables, potatoes, fruits and other items during collection from farms and cold storages are also being adversely affected as most of the labourers who hail from Bihar and Jharkhand have gone home since the West Bengal government announced a lockdown in Kolkata and many other areas from Monday.
West Bengal Cooperative Minister Arup Roy said labourers are going back home despite efforts to convince them that the ongoing situation is temporary and the government is monitoring it 24×7.
“We have asked the police administration to ensure that the labourers are not harassed or face any problem while working,” Roy said.
State Agriculture Minister Ashish Banerjee said he has received complaints of labour scarcity.
“I am looking into the matter. I have spoken to several cold storage and godown owners,” Banerjee said.
The Paschim Banga Pradeshik Krishak Sabha, the state CPI(M)’s peasants wing, said the situation is worse in north Bengal, where produce have been lying on the field.
“We are getting reports from Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar that potatoes are kept on the field. If these are not shifted to cold storage, farmers would face a huge loss and this, in turn, will adversely affect the supply of potatoes to markets.
The state and central governments should come up with a mechanism to tackle the situation,” Sabha secretary Amal Halder said.
Haldar’s concern was echoed by Ramkrishna Pal of the BJP, who felt the state should immediately take steps to keep the supply chain intact.
North Bengal Development Minister Rabindranath Ghosh admitted that there have been reports of potatoes lying on some fields and said he has instructed the administration to immediately send them to cold storage.
Bose, the truckers’ body general secretary, claimed that trucks are also being stopped by police citing the lockdown, though transporting essentials commodities such as rice, wheat, lentils, onions, etc are permitted.
“Owing to the lockdown, eateries and other facilities like night shelters along highways are closed, leaving drivers and their assistants with little option to get food and other essentials,” Bose told PTI.
He said empty trucks are also not being allowed to return to garages after unloading of goods, leading to fear among drivers of getting stranded.
While fish and egg are transported from Andhra Pradesh, tomato, onion and grapes are brought from Nashik in Maharashtra to West Bengal, Bose said adding that rice, potato and vegetables are sent to other states from here.
“The supply chain may get affected if smooth transportation and loading and unloading facilities are not ensured by the governments in different states and the Centre,” he said.