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Why Punjab migrant farm labourers don’t want to leave despite Covid surge & lockdown fears

The 2020 lockdown and ensuing migrant exodus triggered much upheaval in Punjab as it came in the run-up to rabi marketing season and ahead of paddy sowing.

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Patiala: The ongoing surge in Covid cases has triggered fears of another lockdown in states/UTs around India. There have been reports from many places — Ahmedabad, Gurugram and Pune are among the examples — about migrant labourers leaving for home to avoid a repeat of last year, when they were left in the lurch by the surprise nationwide lockdown. 

However, in Punjab, one of the 10 states/UTs worst affected by Covid-19, many labourers say they don’t have a plan to pack up and leave just yet. 

Wheat harvesting and procurement are in full swing, and paddy sowing is right around the corner. There is plenty of work and, with it, the potential of a steady income.

“Be it Covid or anything else, we will have to work to feed ourselves,” said Ganesh Kumar, a farm labourer from Darbhanga, Bihar, who is currently busy harvesting wheat. “Work is abundant as of now due to the wheat harvest in fields and sales in mandis for the next 26-45 days, after which we will start working in the fields across Punjab for rice plantation. There is no question of going back.”

During the ongoing rabi marketing season 2021-22, which began 10 April in Punjab, more than 10.6 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of wheat had been procured from the state as of 14 April this year. The figures for the corresponding period in 2020-21 and 2019-20 were zero LMT and 0.15 LMT, respectively. Procurement is likely to pick up further in the coming days.

Paddy sowing begins in June. Migrant farm labour from across the country, especially from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, has long been a part of the farming cycle in Punjab as labourers. Their role typically involves the crucial task of manual rice transplantation in fields, and cleaning, packing and loading the harvested foodgrains for transportation to mandis across the state.

An estimated eight lakh migrant workers are involved in agricultural activities in Punjab, earning anywhere from Rs 2,500-Rs 3,600/acre. 

In contrast, said Ganesh, there is no regular employment back home. “Though the rate is the same as it is at home, here we have a regular job,” he added.

While the promise of steady earnings is the overarching factor, many migrant labourers also reel off other reasons they would rather stay this time. 

For one, they describe a culture of hospitality in Punjab that makes it a better place to be than others. Some say they are still rattled by the hardships they faced last year, when they returned home only to be left struggling for a job, which forced them to come back to Punjab in desperation.

Then there is the fact that the farmers and arhatiyas (commission agents) are proactively making efforts to ease their stay in the state this time, arranging everything from food to first-aid and accommodation.

Also Read: I walked with India’s migrant labourers. More than angry, they are hurt with Modi

‘A good place to be’ 

The lockdown last year triggered much upheaval in Punjab as it came in the run-up to the rabi marketing season and ahead of paddy sowing, which requires lakhs of labourers.

With many people returning home, last year, only 5-7 per cent of the required migrant labour strength was available in the state.

The locally available labour, in turn, began to seek higher wages for the skilled work. They wanted to be paid between Rs 4,500 and 5,500/acre for rice transplantation, an increase of 25-53 per cent over the pre-Covid rate of Rs 2,500-Rs 3,600/acre (the amount is split among the workers who work on a certain acreage).

According to a report in The Indian Express, hundreds of panchayats subsequently stepped in to impose rate caps of Rs 2,500-3,000/acre for rice transplantation, with some even warning of fines for farmers who pay any higher.

This was among the steps that helped the paddy sowing cycle proceed. As agricultural activities were allowed in the second phase of the lockdown, some farmers also arranged transportation for labourers to return. 

A few, meanwhile, opted for direct seeding instead of transplantation, the more common method of paddy sowing in India that requires rice seedlings grown in a nursery to be pulled out and transplanted in fields.

Rinki Devi, a farm labourer from Motihari in Bihar, said she stayed back in the state last year. “We got Rs 6,000/per month in the wheat harvest season, so we could eat and survive, and didn’t have to fall back,” she said.

She has no desire to leave this year either. “We will stay here in Punjab after the harvesting of wheat… There is also the upcoming maize and paddy season where I will work,” she said.

Rinki Devi is currently working at the Rajpura mandi in Punjab, where she cleans the harvested wheat and packs it into gunny bags for procurement. “We do many kinds of work, like cleaning wheat, filling wheat into gunny bags and loading them,” she added.

In order to avoid the kind of shortage suffered last year, farmers and arhatiyas of Punjab have ensured migrant labourers have all the requisite amenities for their stay in the state.

Rajpura-based farmer Ravi Grover, who is also an arhatiya in the local anaj (foodgrain) mandi said, “We have made all the necessary arrangements this year for our labourers like providing kitchen, accommodation and other facilities. This is to ensure they don’t get back to their native villages like last year, as the cost of bringing them back is much higher than all the facilities we are providing them.”

Sarvesh Mukhiya, a farm labourer from Supaul in Bihar who works in Patiala farms, acknowledged the efforts being made this year. “Before last year’s rice transplantation season, we were made to stay in temporary structures on farmlands by the farmers. However, things have changed. Now, we get rooms to stay with our families while working at the fields and mandis. The owners and contractors who employ us in Punjab are also managing our other needs such as food, clothes and even health. 

“They have provided us with a first-aid kit and hand sanitisers in mandis, which we never got before.”

Migrant labourers in Punjab say the state is a much better destination for work than other places. 

“Even last year, when we left for our villages in the lockdown, we were fed across the streets in Punjab. The hardest part of our route came once we stepped into Delhi and travelled onwards,” said Arun Kumar Yadav, a farm labourer from Araria in Bihar. 

“My relatives who worked as construction workers in Greater Noida had to face much hardship coming back to our village last year during the lockdown as there was no food or water available to them on their way back, unlike for us in Punjab,” Yadav added.

Many migrants, however, are refraining from returning to their home states this year because they had a bitter experience in 2020: They say didn’t find work back home, and had to pay “exponential prices” to return just a few weeks after they left. 

Ganesh is one of them. “Last year, it was very difficult to come back after the lockdown. The trains were shut down, we had to travel back by bus, with tickets costing up to Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 per person,” he added.

Phulo Mukhiya, a farm labourer in Ghanaur, Patiala, who belongs to Darbhanga, Bihar, also recounted a similar experience. 

“After the lockdown, we had to take a bus to Punjab after paying 3 times the fare. We are still undecided about whether to stay put or go back,” he said. “But we are more likely to stay as we have lots of job opportunities here as of now with the wheat harvest, and the upcoming rice season.”

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: ‘We’ll fall sick among family’: Migrant workers in Ahmedabad flock to catch trains back home


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