Agriculture

Harvesting misery

Print edition : May 22, 2020

A health worker sanitises a combine harvestor prior to the reaping of wheat in a field in Jalandhar on April 22. Photo: PTI

A labourer weighs a sack filled with wheat at a market in Jalandhar on April 24. Photo: PTI

The lockdown has accentuated inequalities in the post-harvesting season in Punjab. Poor peasants’ access to markets has been severely curtailed, while the plight of rural manual workers threatens to worsen.

IF the nation is in lockdown following the COVID-19 outbreak, Punjab has gone a step further and imposed a curfew. That this happened just as the harvesting of the rabi crop gathered pace has meant adverse consequences for lives and livelihoods. Although both the State and Central governments have claimed that harvesting and procurement operations have continued as usual, this report from the ground suggests otherwise. The prolonged lockdown has had a differential impact on the peasantry. Small and marginal farmers and rural manual workers engaged in agricultural work are bearing the brunt of the lockdown. And, even large dairy farm owners are reporting heavy losses. In short, the existing socio-economic differentiation in rural Punjab has been exacerbated during the lockdown.

This survey, based on telephonic interviews with respondents from two villages in Jalandhar and Mansa districts in Punjab, is part of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India undertaken by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (fas.org.in). The objective of the exercise, aided by the authors’ familiarity with the existing socio-economic structure of the two villages, was to see whether the lockdown widened existing disparities in the countryside. Another objective was to see the effectiveness of the implementation of the State-level measures to protect livelihoods.

Tehang is a large village in Jalandhar district situated in the Doaba region of Punjab. It was denoted as a red zone by the government during the lockdown. All movement was thus highly restricted. The village is fully irrigated, primarily by private tube wells. It has a high concentration of landholdings among the dominant Jat Sikh households. Demographically, 55 per cent of the households in the village belong to the Scheduled Castes, who are mostly landless and predominantly dependent on non-agricultural wage labour, primarily in construction activities and factories in the nearby towns.

Hakamwala village is in Budhlada tehsil of Mansa district, which shares a boundary with Haryana’s Fatehabad district. Even though few COVID-19 cases have been reported in the district, movement to the two nearest towns, Budhlada in Punjab and Ratia in Haryana, is restricted because of the lockdown. These towns provide significant opportunities for employment through various non-agricultural activities and are of immense importance to manual workers during the lean agricultural season. The village is also an extremely differentiated one, which is reflected in the fact that a few Jat Sikh and Kumhar Sikh (OBC) households control most of the land. Dalit households, consisting of largely Majhabi Sikh, Ramdasia and Ravidasia Sikh castes, are landless and rely on wage work in agriculture in the village and in the nearby towns.

During early May, when the interviews were conducted, wheat-harvesting was being undertaken in both villages. The harvesting operation, although relatively smooth, is delayed this year because of the restrictions imposed on the hours of operation of combine harvesters and the restrictions on marketing of the produce. Harvesting, which would generally be completed by early April, is likely to extend to mid May this year.

Until last year, the triennium average of wheat yield in the State was about 48 quintals per hectare. The reported yield is better than the average in the case of the village in Jalandhar, roughly around 50 quintals per hectare. In the other village in Mansa, the yield is a little lower than the usual average of the region—40 quintals per hectare.

While harvesting is a highly mechanised operation in Punjab, manual labour is required for post-harvest operations such as the filling of gunny bags and loading/unloading from trucks and trolleys in the mandis. Marketing a major worry. In order to maintain social distancing in the mandis, the marketing of the produce has been controlled through the issue of travel passes. The respondents revealed that a farmer was allowed to sell only one trolley a day in the mandi. Earlier the passes were issued by gram panchayats but now they are available on-the-spot in the mandi. As a result, peasants have been asked to store their grain-filled gunny bags in their homes/godowns.

The interviews revealed that the problem is severe for small and marginal cultivators. The immediate need of cash after harvesting has not been solved owing to the delay in selling the produce.

On the other hand, large cultivators in both villages share a strong relationship with the commission agents in the mandis, who have reportedly promised to procure the grains from their fields. A more disruptive case was found in Hakamwala village. There are a few small cultivators who sell their produce through commission agents in the neighbouring town Ratia in Haryana. HS, a Jat Sikh farmer with more than 10 acres of land, said: “After hiring a combine harvester to finish harvesting, and paying higher wages to labourers, we are saddled with the crop, uncertain about when the sale will take place as the borders are shut.” Apart from the sale of wheat, wheat by-product, locally known as toodi, is an important source of income for cultivators and workers alike. While toodi-making is a largely mechanised activity through reapers, which are rented at Rs.800 per acre, labour is required for transporting, storing and/or loading/unloading of toodi. A manual worker from Hakamwala said during the lockdown, work opportunities for loading and unloading toodi have been limited because of physical distancing measures.

While the marketing of wheat has been relatively smooth, farmers growing perishables such as vegetables and flowers have lost heavily. Many small cultivators in the region grow vegetables like radish and potato in the rabi season, but since the sabzi mandis in the nearby towns have been shut, they have not been able to sell their produce there. Some had to accept rock bottom prices while others were forced to plough back a portion of their produce into their fields.

The sale price of the vegetables and other perishable agricultural commodities are volatile, and has fallen. Farmers said retail vegetable prices in general have been rising, citing the lack of supply, which hints at fat margins for the traders at the expense of the farmers themselves.

Labour use in agriculture

A lot of agricultural operations in Punjab are performed by migrant workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Since these workers had left the State after the announcement of the lockdown, labour has been a major concern among farmers for the harvesting and post-harvest tasks. To some extent the shortfall has been met by local workers who were earlier engaged in non-agricultural occupations in the village and nearby areas but who have lost employment during the lockdown.

An interesting arrangement of labour use in wheat-harvesting is observed in the villages. With harvesting entirely done using hired combine harvesters, some four-five workers accompany the combine operators and they perform the tasks of filling the grains in gunny bags and their loading/unloading in the mandi. The rent of the harvester ranges between Rs.1,000 and Rs.1,200 per acre (which includes the operator’s wages), while the wages paid to the labourers are in the range of Rs.350- 400 a day in both the villages. The rent for machinery has not increased compared with last year, but workers reported an increase in the wage rate from Rs.300 in the previous season.

While this arrangement has reduced the hassles for farmers for now, a major concern raised by them is related to the upcoming paddy-transplanting season. This is one of the most labour-absorbing tasks in Punjab’s otherwise highly mechanised agriculture and is performed largely by migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in Tehang and by labour groups from Haryana in Hakamwala.

In the current state of uncertainty, it is not clear whether the workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh or even neighbouring Haryana will be allowed to migrate for work in the forthcoming season. This may, however, induce a long-term accelerated mechanisation through the adoption of paddy-transplanting machines. This machinery, although cost-saving compared with the traditional method using labour, has not been very popular among Punjabi farmers because of the operational hassles and low efficiency. However, with the Punjab government and agricultural universities promoting the use of machines through massive subsidies and providing them through farmer cooperative societies at low rental costs, they may find wider acceptance now. The social impact of this change is expected to be substantial as it would be highly labour-displacing, which is likely to adversely affect the socially marginalised labouring classes.

Fall in milk demand

Milk selling is another source of income for small and marginal cultivators in Punjab, although it has been declining over the past few years. Milk procurement has been normal in the villages after a disruption of two-three days in the initial days of the lockdown. However, milk prices have declined from Rs.70-75 a kg to even as low as Rs.55-60 a kg, largely because of falling demand. This will put an additional strain on the livelihoods of smaller cultivators, what with losses from vegetable cultivation and non-availability of work in the non-farm sector.

There were reported disruptions in the availability of animal feed in the initial days of the lockdown, but the situation appears to have improved somewhat now.

Relief measures and differential impacts

The relief measures reported by the respondents from two villages bring out the stark reality of myopic policymaking in the State. The landed cultivator respondents reported receiving Rs.2,000 in their bank accounts under the PM KISAN scheme. As the government identifies all landowners as farmers, three members of a respondent’s household had received this money since they all had some land registered under their names. They were also able to access the bank and ATMs in the nearby town to withdraw cash.

On the other hand, Dalit manual worker households who had Jan Dhan accounts had received Rs.500 from the government in their bank accounts along with the three months of free PDS rations (5 kg wheat and 1 kg dal per month per member on the ration card). A few manual worker respondents did not even receive Rs.500 in their accounts.

Apart from relief measures by the State, local religious organisations and welfare organisations had also arranged for langar seva and prepared packages of cooked food for poor households in Tehang village in the initial days of the lockdown. However, there has been no such relief work from these organisations since then.

It is evident that in rural Punjab marginal farmers and manual workers have borne the brunt of the sufferings caused by the lockdown. While the large landowning cultivators, with better bargaining power, could access and benefit from established connections with the marketing channels, the relatively poorer sections of the peasantry are reeling under severe uncertainty. A successful harvesting of the winter crop is generally made possible by the intensive work put in by workers, who are largely under a livelihood crisis because of the closure of the non-farm economy in the countryside. The financial and food support that is provided to workers who are stuck with fewer livelihood options is obviously insufficient.

The “success story” of wheat production in Punjab during the ongoing pandemic has also opened up the seamier side of impoverishment, especially of small farmers and landless workers. The economic concern of these sections is glaringly missing from the policy pronouncements made during these distressing times.

Gaurav Bansal is an independent research scholar. Soham Bhattacharya is Senior Research Fellow at the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bengaluru.

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