The lakhs of migrant workers streaming to their home villages due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have left many farmers across the country bereft of agricultural labour just before the crucial harvesting season of the rabi or winter crop. Farmers also worry about government procurement and their ability to sell their crops, given that many mandis or agricultural markets are still closed, despite fresh Home Ministry orders to exempt all such farming activities from the shutdown.
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Wheat, mustard, rabi paddy, maize, chickpeas and soyabean are amongst the major crops harvested during this season.
“Most of the agricultural workers in Haryana and Punjab come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and will not be there for this harvesting season. For the wheat harvest, farmers may be able to use mechanical combine harvesters. But Punjab’s mandis alone employ 3.5 lakh agricultural workers during this season, to load, weigh, clean and bag the produce. How is procurement going to be possible without them?” asked Ramandeep Singh Mann, a Haryana-based farmer activist.
He noted that many of the mechanical combine harvesters owned by Punjab and Haryana farmers are also stuck in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, which harvest their wheat earlier than the northern States.
“They have been caught by the lockdown, usually with four or five workers accompanying them. Now they have to cross multiple State lines to return, so it is unclear how many will make it on time, leading to shortages,” he added. “At the end of the day, harvesting cannot be postponed beyond 7 or 8 days, or the grain will shatter.”
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Both northern States have delayed wheat procurement to April 15, in the hopes that the lockdown will be over by then. Haryana has also written to the Central Food Ministry, asking for incentives to farmers in a bid to stagger the procurement process and prevent congestion at mandis in late April. It wants to offer an additional ₹50 per quintal for those able to store their own crops and wait to sell until May 5, and ₹125 for those willing to hold on till June.
A senior Punjab agriculture official said the State government was struggling to deal with the health crisis and did not plan to address the agricultural concerns till the end of the month. “The response has been slow, and the State does not have the budget to spend on incentives,” he admitted.
“We have received the Haryana proposal, but are yet to take a decision,” Food Secretary Ravi Kant told The Hindu. He said Madhya Pradesh would begin wheat procurement on April 1 itself, as they have local labourers, but acknowledged that the process would be difficult in States that depend on migrant workers, especially if the lockdown is extended further. It is up to States to facilitate procurement, he added.
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The Telangana government has already taken action, announcing that it will procure all non-perishable crops at the village level itself, freeing the farmer of the responsibility of finding storage or transport to the mandis.
“This is a welcome step, because most farmers in this area have no storage of their own,” says Kiran Vissa, coordinator of a farmers group. The departure of migrant workers would also hit hard, he added.
Late on Friday, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an addendum to its lockdown guidelines, exempting all farming activities, after an uproar by the agricultural community. However, groups say implementation on the ground is still patchy.