With the harvesting season of pepper and coffee already started, the farm sector in the district is witnessing severe shortage of labourers, pushing up the seasonal wages of daily workers.
In the High Ranges of Idukki, workers from Tamil Nadu were mainly employed during the harvesting season. However, with an increase in the cost of living in the State and more opportunities in the construction sector in Tamil Nadu had resulted in the low turnout of workers, according to farmers.
“Pepper yield per plant has considerably fallen in this season in addition to the decline in the area of cultivation due to the absence of replanting” said K.V. Joseph, a pepper planter here. He said that the pepper cultivating areas had been shifted to other cultivation or were being kept barren due to the non-profit over the years and high wage rate for labourers.
According to Prakash, a farmer at Parakkadavu, the pepper cultivation has almost completely ceased due to diseases and unsuccessful effort in replanting, as a result of change in the soil fertility, shortage of water and climatic changes especially in the High Ranges.
The coffee plantation sector is also witnessing shortage of labour and poor yield due to unfavourable climate during the flowering season. “It is unremunerative to employee workers at high wages when there is a fall in the production,” said Prakash.
“Though the average wage rate for the seasonal labourers is Rs. 150, farmers pay them Rs. 180 to Rs. 200 to attract them,” said Jayaprakash, medium farmer who has coffee and pepper cultivation. According to him local labourers are difficult to be attracted even at high wages after the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) was introduced. Though the NREGP wage is less as compared to the prevailing wage for farm workers, the less labour involved in the NREGP attract the workers, he said and added that medium and large estates had already arranged vehicle facilities and are bringing labourers from remote areas resulting in the shortage of local labourers,
A large number of vehicles move from Cumbam in Tamil Nadu to the cardamom plantations in Kumily and Vandanmedu daily and workers availability is confirmed. “For the cardamom sector, a high wage could be affordable due to comparatively high prices for cardamom and the plucking is less labour intensive,” said Prakash and added that pepper plucking is done standing on the ladder for long time. This physically strains the worker and they demand high wage, he said. For the small scale coffee and pepper farmer who faces low prices for the yield, it is left with no option but to pay high amount as the result of his year-long labour is harvested only once a year, said Prakash.