Kharif sowing: Labour shortage in Punjab, abundance in UP amid Covid-19

For millions of farmers, the kharif season holds a lot of hope after the disruption seen in the rabi season.
Nirmal Singh, a large farmer in Nabha district of Punjab, owns around 10 acres of land and grows wheat and paddy in rotation, rarely experimenting with any other crop.

Normally, as the monsoon enters India in June and starts its journey through the mainland, Singh begins transplanting paddy seedlings by growing them in nurseries and then replanting them in water-logged fields to get uniform height and yield.

However, the situation is vastly different this year.

Singh said Covid-19 has led to such large-scale migration of labourers from his village that he is being forced to employ locally available labour, which is costing him twice the usual rate.

“Till last year, the rate was around Rs 2,500-3,000 per acre for transplanting paddy. This year it has gone up to almost Rs 4,500 per acre, while in some parts of Punjab it has even reached Rs 6,000 per acre,” Singh said over the phone.

Though the increase in rates is good for the rural economy, for farmers like Singh this means a sharp escalation in production cost. To top it, diesel rates have jumped by over 20 per cent since March adding to their production cost.

“I know of farmers who have hired special buses to ferry migrant labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but how many of us can afford this?” asked Singh. “If only we get a good price for rice above the MSP (minimum support price), then this extra cost will be absorbed,” he added.

For millions of farmers like Singh, the kharif season holds a lot of hope after the disruption seen in the rabi season. Kharif acreage of non-perishable crops till June 19 was almost 39 per cent more than last year, while monsoon was nearly 30 per cent more than normal in the first 15 days of this season.

To tackle the situation, farmers in Punjab and Haryana are shifting to alternative cultivation methods such as direct seeding of rice, where paddy is grown directly from seeds and not transplanted, to lower their dependency on hired labour. There are drawbacks to this though, and the number of farmers using such methods isn’t big enough.

“The problem of weeds and moisture management is crucial in direct seeding, which is why despite being in practice for many years, acreage under DSR hasn’t been more than 1 million hectares in any given year in Punjab,” Balwinder Singh Sindhu, former agriculture commissioner of Punjab told Business Standard.

Uttar Pradesh

Around 200 kilometres away, Vishwajit, a farmer from Shamli district in Western Uttar Pradesh, isn’t worried about labour availability because Covid-19 has ensured an abundance of labourers.

The returning migrants have been a blessing in disguise for Vishwajit, as they have at least temporarily addressed the scarcity that he usually faces at this time of the year.

The optimism is shared by the UP government as well. “There is abundance of farm labour and sowing is progressing smoothly. There is adequate availability of fertiliser and seed stocks for farmers,” UP Agriculture Minister Surya Pratap Shahi told Business Standard. Vishwajit is, however, worried about the general uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. “The infection is now coming to villages and there is fear among farmers of contracting it,” he said.

Sudhir Panwar, president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, concurs. “Although, kharif acreage is likely to be higher, the aftermath of Covid-19 would certainly pose impediments in the form of scarcity of capital to buy farm inputs and the growing infection rate in rural areas,” he said.

West Bengal 

In West Bengal, the labour problem is of another dimension.

Ramprasad Ghoshal, a farmer from Burdwan district, said migrant labourers who returned to his village during the lockdown are itching to go back as farm wages are much lower than what they earned in cities — they get Rs 200-250 a day as agricultural labourers, compared with the Rs 600-700 a day they earned as factory workers.

The state is expecting a good kharif crop this year, although excess rains have dampened spirits a little and delayed sowing in some districts. West Bengal produces about 16 million tonnes (mt) of rice every year. The kharif paddy output accounts for about 70 per cent of production in the state.

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