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Labour crunch, low demand crippling farm sector during coronavirus lockdown

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI/CHANDIGARH: When rainfall in Maharashtra continued till January this year, Shivdas Patil, a chilli farmer in state’s Jalgaon district, thought that by the end of May when harvesting would end, he would laugh all the way to the bank. In normal years rainfall rarely crosses December and the yield of chilli is 15-20 quintals per acre. This year with bountiful rain he expects a bumper crop, with more than 25 quintals of yield per acre.

Yet, Patil does not know whether to laugh or cry. That’s because it is barely mid April and harvesting is yet to peak, but the lockdown has resulted in the lack of transportation of his produce and very few buyers at mandis. “We take our produce to the market but there are hardly any buyers. The other day I sold four quintals of chilli at Rs 10 per kg. In better times I sell at Rs 30-40 per kg,” Patil said.

Shyam Dwivedi, a wheat grower in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district, too expects a bumper crop. But unlike Patil, grain farmers such as Dwivedi who have larger land holdings are faced with another problem: lack of farm labour. Dwivedi has 40 acres of land and needs at least 50 labourers to harvest the wheat. But as most of the farm workers have left for their native places in Bihar and eastern UP, he faces the prospect of crop loss. “Scarce labour is delaying the harvesting, which we wanted to complete by April 15. Even those labourers who are available are demanding up to Rs 300 daily, which is double the normal daily wage,” Dwivedi said.

From Kerala to Punjab, Odisha to Maharashtra, rural India is in distress owing to the lockdown, threatening to deal a body blow to the farm and allied industries sector, which accounts for over 16 per cent of India’s GDP and employing, directly and indirectly, over 40 per cent of the Indian workforce.
The cruel irony is that farmers had been hoping to reap a rich harvest this season owing to the good rainfall, which raised the water table in even parched regions.  There is no official data on the number of migrant farm labour as it falls in the informal sector, but according to the International Labour Organisation’s estimates, which is based on Census 2011 figures, around 24 lakh migrants work in fields across India.