Yoked together, migrant workers and farmers are back in Punjab’s fields

With few livelihood options in villages, the labourers are happy to return while farmers have promised higher wages and amenities for skilled work

June 12, 2020 07:00 pm | Updated June 13, 2020 09:19 am IST - DEH KALAN

Farm workers from Sitamarhi, Bihar, work in paddy fields at Deh Kalan village in the outskirts of Mohali on Friday, June 12 2020.

Farm workers from Sitamarhi, Bihar, work in paddy fields at Deh Kalan village in the outskirts of Mohali on Friday, June 12 2020.

Clad in a typical kurta-pyjama, with a green turban adorning his head, 55-year-old Devinder Singh is a relieved man after a group of thirty-odd labourers, expert in paddy sowing, arrived at Deh Kalan village in Punjab’s Shaibzada Ajit Singh Nagar from Bihar, in a “specially arranged bus” right on time as paddy transplantation officially kicked-off in the State.

To ensure that farm hands are available for timely sowing, the farmers in Punjab are offering a hike in wages over last year’s remuneration, besides facilitating travel from their native places, along with free accommodation and food. Some are even offering liquor as an added incentive.

Race against time

“What option do I have? If I don't offer them more wages or arrange for their travel, who will sow paddy in my field? Time is running out; there’s an acute shortage of expert paddy sowing labourers — they mostly hail from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Most of them had gone to their villages before or during the lockdown and got stuck there... Local labourers are not skilled enough to sow paddy, and hence migrant labourers are always in demand,” says Mr. Devinder Singh, who is all set to plant paddy in his 20 acre land.

Also read: No migrant worker-related issue in Punjab: CM Amarinder Singh

“Most of these labourers, who have come had been working on my farm for the last 20 years. We were in touch over phone. Arrangements for their bus travel were made after necessary formalities through local authorities here. Bus operators charged ₹2,500 per person for the trip, which is being borne by the labourers,” says Mr. Singh.

But all farmers are not so lucky, especially those who don’t have regular labourers working at their fields. They point out that labourers are demanding between ₹4,000-₹4,200 per acre for paddy sowing against last year’s rates of ₹2,500–2,700 per acre.

“I am negotiating with labourers who have came from Bihar. They are demanding ₹4,000 per acre while I am offering ₹3,400 per acre... Let’s see where it gets settled. Also, I’ll be taking care of their food, accommodation and other basic needs,” says Harish Kumar, who has taken 20 acres on contract to cultivate paddy.

Derailed hopes

Sukhdeep Singh, another farmer, feels if train services had resumed, the problem of labour shortage would have been resolved.

“Governments should resume train services so that migrant labourers can return. Many labourers are asking to share travel expenses through buses. It’s not only the increased labour cost this season, but the rise in seed and input costs as well that will put additional financial burden on me and other farmers. The Minimum Support Price of paddy recently raised by the Centre government is too meagre,” says Mr. Sukhdeep Singh.

Amid concerns of labour shortage, the Punjab government had this year announced an advancement in the paddy nursery sowing and transplantation dates. June 10 was fixed as commencement date for transplantation of paddy instead of last year’s June 20. Paddy sowing has started but farmers are facing labour crunch without labourers.

Happy to be back

With the summer sowing set to gain momentum in days to come, migrant labourers, who are finding it difficult to secure any regular job at their native places, are also eager to return. Bijali Kapar, a 43-year-old native of Kachaur village in Bihar’s Sitamarhi is visibly elated after arriving at Deh Kalan on the special bus.

“I had been coming to Punjab for over 20 years now to work in fields. My monthly savings had been around ₹10,000 to ₹11,000. Back at home it’s difficult to make ends meet. People like me want to come back for work here as there’s hardly any regular work at my village. But unless regular train services resume, it’s difficult for most of us to travel,” says Mr. Kapar, who left for Kachaur in February this year and was stranded there following the nationwide lockdown.

“I intended to come back by the end of March for wheat harvesting, but due to the lockdown, I couldn’t return. As soon as the travel arrangements were made, I boarded the bus. There’s hardly any option of regular work at my village and so people like me venture out,” he added.

Added costs

“Travel through train would had cost me only a few hundred rupees but for the bus travel I had to shell ₹2,500... all this will eventually add to the cost of cultivation for farmers,” says Mahesh Paswan, another of the labourers who has returned by bus.

Vinod Mandal, a labourer who has been coming to Punjab for around 12 years now, says, “At my village I may get work for 10 days in a month, for which I'll get between ₹200-250 daily. But here, I am able to earn ₹500-600 per day, and most importantly the work and income is regular.”

Ram Naresh Chaudhary, who has come along with his 20-year-old son for the paddy sowing, said he would have earned around ₹45,000 over the past three months had he been in Punjab. “I am happy to be back,” he added.

Harinder Kapar, the leader of the labourer group, who is the key person negotiating terms of work between labourers and farmers, said: “This year labour wages have gone up around 15%-20% in comparison to last year as fewer people are available. Also, farmers are offering to take care of labourer's accommodation, food and other basic needs. A few have even offered to provide booze,” he said.

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