Coronavirus lockdown: Crop ready, states look for farm hands

Sukhbir Siwach, Sreenivas Janyala
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A farmer at his wheat field in Punjab on Sunday. (Express)

IT’S TIME to harvest wheat in Punjab and Haryana, and Telangana is sitting on a bumper paddy crop. But all three states are struggling to find farm labour, with the lockdown stalling movement of people. Besides, for the two northern states, where rains have delayed harvesting, the lockdown has meant harvesting machines remain stuck in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, where harvesting happens early.

Farmers are getting increasingly anxious. “When will this lockdown end?” asked Rammehar Beniwal, a farmer from Gorakhpur village of Fatehabad district, who has wheat crop in 10 acres. “My crop is almost ready, but no labourers and harvester machines,” he said.

“Unlike in the past, when farmer families harvested the entire crop, we depend on labourers now,” says Beniwal. Every year, many harvester machines are taken from here to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. This year, they are stuck there due to lockdown. “In this scenario, harvesting of the wheat is bound to get delayed,” he said.

According to Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) Haryana president Gurnam Singh Chaduni, harvesting machines are taken to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh since the harvesting season takes place early in these states.

He said farmers in the state would face tough times this year. “A large number of labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who come to Haryana to work during harvesting every year, have not landed here till now. And now, they can’t travel because of the lockdown,” said the farmer leader.

Haryana Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Minister J P Dalal admitted there would shortage of migrant labourers. He said the state would try to ensure smooth mobility of harvesting machines to Haryana from other states. “We are contacting owners of harvesting machines in Punjab to ensure that there won’t be any difficulty in the movement of their machines in Haryana this time,” says Dalal.

“Each mandi requires 200-400 labourers. To deal with the problem of shortage of labourers and prevent the spread of coronavirus, we have decided to stagger the wheat procurement this time,” Dalal said. Further, they would ensure smooth mobility of tractor-trolleys so that farmers don’t face any hurdles in taking their produce to the mandis.

Telangana, meanwhile, is expecting a bumper crop of 1.05 crore tonnes of paddy and 14.40 lakh tonnes of maize, but thousands of farm workers from Bihar, UP and Jharkhand have either gone back or have not returned from their native villages since Holi. Telangana has standing crop in over 54 lakh acres.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao said on Sunday, “We will be helpless without farm labour who usually come from Bihar and UP. They usually go to their native villages during Holi but this time have not been able to return. Those who are available are not enough to harvest the crop in over 54 lakh acres. If they do not arrive in time, we won’t be able to harvest the crop. Chief Secretary is in talks with Bihar counterpart to try and arrange special trains to bring some farm workers in the coming days,’” he said.

From paddy sown in 44 lakh acres, the state expects a bumper crop of over one crore tonnes. “In view of the prevailing COVID-19 situation, we will purchase every food grain produced in the state. The market yards have been closed and we will purchase directly from farmers from the villages. But before that, we have to arrange for workers to harvest the crop,’” he said.

The Chief Minister also announced an ex-gratia of Rs 500 per person per week to stranded migrants and those who do not have white ration cards but are facing unemployment or starvation. “Migrants and people coming from other states are Telangana’s development partners. I appeal to all migrants not to worry about going back home. We will take care of you—we will give you 12 kgs of rice or wheat flour and Rs 500 per person during this crisis. Don’t panic, the state will take care of you. We have a list of about 3.5 lakh migrants at present. Every migrant family with two adults will receive Rs 1,000. If necessary, we will start community kitchens at marriage halls and feed the migrants and other stranded people,” he said.

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