Farming under lockdown: Short on labourers, a long harvest

Even though a record crop is expected this year, the lockdown may have robbed farmers of the chance to reap profits. There are no migrant labourers to help with harvesting and procurement, and no transport facilities to take the produce to markets in many parts of the country, report Vikas Vasudeva and Priscilla Jebaraj

Updated - December 03, 2021 06:27 am IST

Published - April 18, 2020 12:15 am IST

Unexpected rainfall and the lack of farm hands is proving to be a nightmare for farmers in Punjab and Haryana.

Unexpected rainfall and the lack of farm hands is proving to be a nightmare for farmers in Punjab and Haryana.

Jagtar Singh is a man in a hurry. It’s April 15, and with temperatures starting to soar, the government has just begun procurement of the winter wheat crop. Migrant workers have fled Jagtar’s village, Kailon, in Punjab following the announcement of a lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic . As a result, there is shortage of farm labour in the village. Jagtar, 47, and his family of six are rushing to harvest their single acre of farmland themselves and sell the crop as early as possible, to prevent it from getting damaged for want of storage space.

“We have permission to harvest during the lockdown, but there’s no labour available. So, my entire family has been manually harvesting the crop for the last two days,” Jagtar says. “So far, we have been able to harvest less than half the field. It’s a time-consuming process. After harvesting, we will have to get the threshing done. It will at least take another week to complete the harvest.”

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Usually, 90% of the wheat in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana is harvested using combine harvester machines. But with physical distancing norms in place now, for many small farmers, that system has been thrown out of gear.

“This year, things are tough,” says Jagtar. “I own a small farm. In the neighbourhood, many like me have small landholdings. Earlier, most of us used to jointly harvest the wheat using combine machines as it was economical and would save a lot of time. But this season we can’t jointly hire the machine as everyone is being issued a coupon by the government through commission agents for bringing their produce to the mandi to ensure that people don’t congregate. As the date and time will differ for most of us, it becomes difficult to synchronise harvesting,” he says.

Jagtar’s head droops as he calculates the time needed for the entire harvesting process. What usually takes two or three days will now take at least 10 days.

The major worry is how to store this harvested produce during this extended period, says his brother Ranjot Singh. “We have to keep the harvested crop in the open field. We don’t have any space to store it in our small house, which is around two kilometres from the farm,” he says. “What if it rains or if it gets stolen? Our efforts will be ruined. The longer the produce stays in the field, the higher the risk.” To add to their woes, the family has outstanding debts to the tune of ₹3 lakh with the bank and commission agents and cannot afford crop damage.

Unfortunately for them and other anxious farmers across the northern plains, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast says a western disturbance is likely to affect the western Himalayan region, which could bring scattered rain and thunder showers over the region on April 17 and 18. Standing crops and harvest stored in the open could face widespread damage.

The coupon system

Wheat is the major rabi crop in the winter farming season in India, and the only one bought by government agencies at the pre-set minimum support price (MSP) of ₹1,925 per quintal . This year, over 31 million hectares of farmland have been sown with wheat across the country, and a record harvest of 106 million tonnes is expected.

In western States such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and even Rajasthan, warmer weather means that the wheat harvest was already under way when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, and is now largely over.

However, the bulk of the country’s wheat is grown in Punjab and Haryana, an area known as the bread basket of India. The prolonged winter delayed the maturing of the grain and pushed harvesting dates by at least a week.

Coronavirus lockdown | Haryana to start staggered wheat procurement from April 20

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi first announcing a lockdown until April 14, State authorities set procurement dates after that date. Punjab opened its mandis on April 15 , while Haryana will follow suit on April 20 . In a bid to stagger procurement and prevent congestion at mandis, Haryana has offered incentives to farmers who can delay selling their produce until May or June.

At the annual agriculture conference held on the first day of procurement in Punjab, Agriculture Commissioner Suresh Malhotra reiterated the physical distancing and sanitisation instructions meant to protect both farm workers and end consumers from SARS-CoV-2: “Keep a distance of 4-5 metres between workers. Sanitise all tools, machinery and packaging materials. Don’t touch your mouth, nose and eyes without washing your hands with soap. Wear masks or at least cover your nose and mouth with gamchas and chunnis . Keep farm produce in the open, preferably in the sun, for 48 hours before storing.”

The long list was presented to the States, via video conferencing due to the lockdown, along with another long list of actions taken by the Centre to facilitate agricultural activity. “We have exempted all agricultural work from lockdown restrictions. Mandis can function with at least 50% of their workforce. Although migrant labour may have left, local labour is available, so there is no need to panic. Anyway, most Punjabi farmers use machines for harvesting,” said Malhotra. As many as 17,500 combine harvesters are available in the State.


Punjab is expecting a bumper wheat harvest crop this season with production likely to touch 182 lakh tonnes. The government estimates that around 137 lakh tonnes of this will arrive in the market, most of which will be purchased by government agencies. The cash credit limit of ₹22,900 crore has already been approved by the Centre to ensure prompt and seamless procurement operations in the State. On day one (April 15), government agencies procured 3,119 tonnes of wheat across the State. To ensure smooth procurement of wheat in all 22 districts of the State, as many as 3,691 purchase centres or mandi yards have been set up. To avoid crowding, maintain safe physical distancing norms, and ensure smooth procurement, a detailed action plan has been chalked out to undertake procurement by staggering arrival of produce in the mandis by issuing coupons fixed with holograms to the farmers through commission agents (Artiyas).

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“With each coupon a farmer will be entitled to bring one trolley of about 50 to 70 quintals of wheat. A farmer will be entitled to take multiple coupons each day or on different days depending on space in the purchase centre in order to avoid rush in the mandis,” says Viswajeet Khanna Additional Chief Secretary (Development), Punjab.

At the Kharar grain mandi just outside Chandigarh, farmers are discovering that this system is cumbersome and costly in practice. “I harvested the crop with a combine machine. There’s no shortage of combines. I have brought over 80 quintals of wheat for sale without any hassle. But the actual problem will start now,” says Baljinder Singh, 67, of Rasan Heri village. “I have another lot of harvested produce that I need to bring for sale. But I don’t know how many days later I’ll be given the next coupon. All that time, the crop will be out in the open as there’s no storage space.”

Citing cost and health concerns, he says the restriction of one trolley per coupon should be removed. “If a farmer can bring his entire produce in one visit, it will only help mitigate infection risk at procurement centres,” he says.

Shamsher Singh from Harlalpur village says his family’s harvesting has been going at a slow pace. “Today, I have come to the mandi only to enquire about the mechanism. Of the 15 acres in which we have cultivated wheat, so far we have harvested crop in about 2-3 acres. We have kept the harvested crop in a shed, waiting for the coupons. But most of my neighbours don’t have sheds or storage space. It’s a difficult time,” he says.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union’s general secretary in Punjab, Jagmohan Singh, points out that as one coupon only allows sale of 50 quintals, it will be a difficult task for farmers with big landholdings to sell their produce. “50 quintals of wheat is approximately what you get from 2.5 acres. How will farmers with large landholdings sell their produce? How many visits will they have to make to the mandi,” he asks.

Lifting and transporting produce

The Punjab Agricultural Marketing Board has stated in its guidelines that Deputy Commissioners in their areas will ensure that the sold produce is lifted within 48 hours.

The government is still making arrangements for packaging and storage materials. Against the total requirement of 4.82 lakh gunny bales, 3.05 lakh have been made available till April 12. Likewise, the arrangements for the 47,000 tarpaulins against the total demand of 52,570, and 29,261 mesh nets against 32,805, have already been made.

To ensure that farmers get their monetary return at the earliest, the amendment of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act has been notified to ensure that farmers are paid electronically through commission agents within 48 hours after the produce is lifted.

Commission agent Shyam Mittal emphasises that it’s the lifting and transportation of produce to the storage points that will put to test the government’s claim of “foolproof” preparedness for hassle-free procurement of wheat. “There’s a shortage of labour. The skilled labourers, who are usually from Bihar, are experts in stacking the bags in godowns and stores. But since the lockdown, most of them have gone back to their native place,” he says.

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Labourers are also demanding higher wages this year, given the lockdown. “Last season, the payment was fixed around ₹14 per bag (50 kg) and this year it has been fixed around ₹15 by the market committee. But labourers are demanding ₹20/bag. After the bags are packed, it’s the lifting of the produce, which is done by government agencies, that will need to be swift. Otherwise it could pose a serious problem,” says Mittal.

At the end of the day, time equals money. Most of the precautions put in place to prevent the spread of infection translate to extra cost for the farmer. The government needs to announce a financial incentive to farmers to cover their enhanced expenses due to staggered procurement, says Surinder Singh of Popna village. “Storing the produce at home means incurring additional costs of labour and transportation. Also, fire incidents during the harvesting season usually go up, which is a major concern for crop safety. The government, whether at the Centre or State, should adequately compensate farmers,” he says.

“Industrial lobbies are pushing the government for a bailout and economic package because of COVID-19 losses, but farmers’ losses will be much higher. They are yet to get any financial support from the government apart from the PM-KISAN income support of ₹2,000 which was due anyway,” says Devinder Sharma, an agriculture scientist and food policy expert. “During a lockdown, an auto firm may shut down production and may not be able to sell cars. But a farmer has no choice. He has to continue production with or without labour. He has to harvest the crop even if it then rots in the field, or if he makes losses in getting it to the market.”

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Watermelons, grapes go to waste

The problem may be more acute for those selling perishable crops such as fruits and vegetables. In Maharashtra’s Beed district, banana farmer Bhagwan Deshmukh had hoped that this year’s harvest would help him pay off his outstanding loans. However, since the lockdown was imposed and transport came to a halt, he has not been able to find a trader to transport his yield. “Now the only option left for him is to sell the land to return the money to the land,” says Kalidas Aapet, a worker with the farmers’ group Shetkari Sanghtana, which is aiding Deshmukh. With APMCs closed and transport to take produce to customers unavailable, farmers are in shock.

An aerial view of the closed APMC wholesale vegetable and fruit market at Vashi in Navi Mumbai.

An aerial view of the closed APMC wholesale vegetable and fruit market at Vashi in Navi Mumbai.


In the western district of Solapur, Siddheshwar Hembarde and Sanjay Birajdar had hoped to gain large profits from their watermelon crop, planted on two and three acres, respectively. On March 16 and 17, Hembarde sold 95 tonnes of watermelon at ₹8 per kg. As Birajdar waited for the trader, the lockdown was announced and transport came to a standstill. “He distributed watermelon for free in the entire village,” said Aapet, noting that it was just a difference of four days. “The government in its initial order did not specify fruit transport as an essential service. There was confusion. It led to the destruction of fruit crop all over the State,” he says.

Abhijit Zambre is a grapes farmer in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, known for producing export-quality grapes. “The initial yield of grapes, before the COVID-19 scare, was sold without any hassle. However, the problem started once the lockdown was imposed. The traders refused to pick up the yield giving reasons of ban on transport. Prices were slashed according to the wishes of the traders. Grapes have to be sold without delay and farmers had to sell the crop at much lower prices,” says Zambre.

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In the mosambi-growing region of Aurangabad and Jalana, farmers looked forward to a good year after two consecutive seasons of drought and hailstorm. Farmers usually sell the crop while it is on the tree to the trader, who brings his own labour to harvest the fruit and load it in the trucks. “With the availability of water, this year’s crop was sure to bring huge money. But as the lockdown was announced and movement of labour was stopped, no trader was available to purchase the crop. It’s all gone now. The impact of this virus is much bigger than any drought,” says Aapet.

The policy-implementation gap

The Centre announced a slew of relaxations and support measures for agriculture in the first two weeks of the lockdown. All agricultural and horticultural activities, markets, labour and transport were supposed to be exempt from lockdown restrictions. Subsidies on crop loans were extended for late repayment. States were asked to relax regulations and allow direct purchases by bulk buyers and retailers. The digitally connected e-NAM marketplace system was touted, along with a logistics module connecting farmers and traders to a network of almost 8 lakh trucks and 2 lakh transporters. The Railways introduced 67 routes for perishable produce. An Agri Transport Call Centre was set up to handle transport issues.

However, as farmers from different parts of the country reported, many of these policies were not uniformly implemented on the ground, especially in the first few weeks. “Movement on the ground has been the real problem. In many cases, the Centre’s instructions have not percolated down to District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police, resulting in the harassment of farmers and agricultural traders, and supply chain disruptions,” says former Agriculture Secretary Siraj Hussain, who is now a fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Delhi. “Nationally, we must recognise that the implications of COVID-19 go beyond health issues.”

In a bid to shield farmers from logistics hurdles, both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have launched initiatives to buy winter paddy directly from farmers at the village level, rather than expecting them to come to the mandi. In Andhra Pradesh, the responsibility of procuring the State’s expected harvest of 57 lakh tonnes has been given to agriculture assistants at village secretariats.

Also read | Farmers are among the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic

The idea is to ensure MSP to farmers who are battered by restricted transport, untimely rains, and damaged crops, says K. Kannababu, the State’s Agriculture Minister. Owing to the recent rains in April, several crops were severely damaged. “As per the preliminary enumeration, paddy, maize and horticulture crops in over 30,000 hectares were damaged. The government is going all out to procure even the damaged crops,” he says.

The Telangana government has also promised procurement of “every grain of paddy” at MSP rates. Although the State Agriculture Minister, S. Niranjan Reddy, says the government was prepared to open up to 8,500 procurement centres to purchase paddy in villages, only 2,720 centres had been opened as on April 14. The State is also dealing with a shortage of gunny bags. Farmers in other States are closely watching the experiment of village-level procurement to see whether it is a viable option.

In some parts of the country where the rabi harvest has already come to a close, sowing of the kharif or summer season crop has already begun. In fact, government data show early sowing of paddy with the sown area almost 40% higher than usual by April 10. The IMD forecast of a normal monsoon has bolstered the Agriculture Ministry to target an all-time record production of foodgrain of 298.3 million tonnes in 2020-21.

“The lockdown has proved one thing: agriculture is truly the backbone of the Indian economy. Coronavirus or not, farm production goes on because the demand for food will always be there. And so long as we meet our kharif and rabi production target, we are happy,” says Sharma. “But the cost to the farmer, to agricultural workers, is not taken into account in that process.”

He pointed to the tragic images of lakhs of migrant workers trudging back to their villages due to the lockdown. “This reverse migration proves that they were actually agricultural refugees, who left for the cities only because they could not make a living in the fields,” he said. “Everyone is talking about the need to invest in public health once the COVID-19 crisis is over. Our farmers, agricultural workers are also front line workers during this time and they also deserve attention. If we can invest in agriculture and overhaul it so it is profitable, then we will have actually learned something from this crisis.”

B. Chandrashekhar, Alok Deshpande, Aditya Anand and Appaji Reddem contributed to reporting

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