As farmers from Ajnala in Amritsar, Punjab to Shekpura in Jhajjar, Haryana are busy harvesting their crops; they are missing migrant workers. This Rabi season, when the country is under lockdown to check the outbreak of COVID-19 and the labourers from eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha who used to travel to Punjab and Haryana to assist farmers in harvesting, clearing straw from grains, loading the grains on tractor trolleys and later when the farmers reached the mandi or market, the migrant labourer with the procurement agencies used to unload these grains and then pack them in the sacks to move them to warehouses of marketing companies.
The season, which starts with the harvest of the Rabi crop and goes till the sowing of the Kharif, both in Punjab and Haryana deploys roughly 16 lakh farm hands.
In addition to this, 10 lakh labourers are needed for the procurement by the procurement agents in these two states. There are two set of migrant farm labourers —permanent, who stay at farms and assist the farmers across the year and seasonal, who come for shorter spans when the intensity is higher especially in this part of the year from mid-March to July.
After the March 23 curfew in Punjab and later the nationwide lockdown were imposed, many permanent labourers too went back home. And seasonal labourers who had come from eastern India could not travel because trains and public transport were shut. Both Punjab and Haryana made efforts to mobilise the industrial labourers or those doing daily wage work in the cities for many of these jobs. But you just have to speak to the farmers to understand that this simply didn’t work.
The industrial labourers require different skill-sets and don’t want to work in the fields. The farmers tell us, the local labourers —getting free grain under welfare schemes, run by respective states as well as from the Centre and are getting money from various safety nets—are not ready to work in the fields either.
In fact, officials in Punjab tried to use labourers registered under MNREGA. On an average, there are roughly 70 registered labourers in every village of the state. But after a week of a procurement cycle, they realised many of them either can’t work or don’t have the skill set and aptitude to work in the fields.
There is an aspirational mismatch as well. Farmers used to pay Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 to a group of 10 labourers to harvest an acre of wheat farm. But in the lockdown, freelance labourers are asking for Rs 500 per person for a day’s job. Mechanisation is the only saviour for farmers, but the challenge for procurement continues.