Heft of the underdog

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Migrant workers in Punjab lining up to board a train to Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

The farming sector in Punjab is the first to feel the pinch as lakhs of migrant workers head home, but industry and construction are not far behind.

As the vast majority of Punjab’s 10 lakh migrant labourers prepare to leave for their hometowns and villages by the Shramik special trains, the State stares at an all-around economic crisis. From cycle manufacturers to cotton mills and agricultural farms, the shortage of skilled and unskilled labour threatens to make itself felt everywhere.

With the paddy-sowing season coming up in early June, the farming sector will be the first to feel the impact. Though mechanisation has begun in the sector, sowing is still largely a labour-intensive operation. The sowing season officially begins on June 20 but is likely to be advanced to June 10 this year. Some farmers unions want it to be advanced to June 1, given the absence of migrant labourers in the rural market.

With migrant labourers gone, local labourers are asking for higher wages. Until last year, the rate was Rs.3,000 to Rs.3,500 an acre for sowing, and as low as Rs.2,700 in some places. This year there are demands for Rs.5,500 and even Rs.6,000 for the same work. This threatens to produce a snowballing effect on procurement prices, with the chain reaction finally going out to retail markets across the country. With the departure of migrant labour, the peasant is not in a position to strike a hard bargain with the inadequate number of skilled farmhands available. Already, there are reports of tension between peasants and labourers in many districts.

Tara Singh Sandhu is a farmer in Moga’s Bhinder village; he is also the general secretary of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. He said: “Punjab is looking at a twofold problem. The paddy-sowing will be much more expensive…. The other factor is psychological. All migrant labourers want to go home, even those who were being looked after well. After the pandemic, everyone wants to go back to his village or town. We are looking at both a psychological and an economic problem. In the circumstances, what is the guarantee they will come back after the lockdown is lifted?”

Incidentally, nearly 90 per cent of the migrant labour force in Punjab comes from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while the rest hail from Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. Sandhu said: “People do not realise it now, but in the days to come things will be grim. When cycle manufacturers open their factories, there will be no technically skilled labourers available. Local workers never learnt the technical expertise of making small parts. If migrant labour is not there, the economy will suffer a severe loss. Already, the rates of electricity in the State are much higher than in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.”

Sandhu said that migrant labourers were more industrious. “They worked longer as they stayed at the farm itself. Local workers do not work in the same way. In short, it is crisis time.” According to one estimation, while four migrant labourers between them are able to sow an acre of paddy, it takes six local labourers to do the same work.

Shingara Singh of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, however, felt that no matter what the magnitude of the problem, the crisis could be resolved if informed decisions were made taking ground realities into account. He said: “Punjab’s economy is largely dependent on migrant labour. So, undeniably, there is a problem. As the paddy-sowing season begins, we must understand that paddy is sown in a little more than 24 lakh hectares. Another six lakh hectares will be used for basmati. But that will come in July. At the moment, we are looking to resolve the issue of sowing paddy from early June. We need more than three-and-a-half crore workers for sowing in the entire period. If we had that kind of workforce, sowing could have been done in a day, but Punjab has only 15 lakh rural labourers. They will take about a month to sow the crop.

“If the Punjab government starts the sowing season early, it will help. The official sowing season starts on June 20 and if a farmer sows earlier than that, the fields are demolished, tractors are run over them. So peasants are dependent on the government for official permission. This year, keeping in mind the changed circumstances, the sowing should begin June 1.

“While things seem difficult, we can take heart from our recent experience. When the lockdown began, it was said harvesting the wheat crop would be practically impossible. Some said, the crop would not be harvested and nor would it reach the mandis. But the famed Punjabi spirit prevailed. All worked out well. Whatever problem we faced was from the government, not from the labourers.

“Initially, the government had allowed each farmer to bring only one trolley of wheat a day to the mandi. But that was a decision taken in air-conditioned offices by people who had no idea of the ground reality. Finally, they relented and allowed the farmers to bring the entire produce in a day. We are hopeful of repeating it with the paddy season. We need to take decisions based on the ground reality.”

Jagroop Singh, State general secretary of the Communist Party of India, said, “Social media is agog with the problems of migrant labourers. People are saying paddy-farming faces a challenge. But let’s be realistic. The Punjab labourer is not getting employment anywhere. So, he is easily available. Also, I believe with this challenge comes an opportunity to transform paddy-sowing into a mechanised activity. I believe that this year some 25 per cent of the fields will be sowed through mechanised measures. Enough machines are not available. People are running for machines thinking labour will not be available for sowing.”

Machines may solve the problem for some farmers, but to the vast majority of farmers, sowing seems an uphill ask this season. Jagroop Singh said: “Meetings are taking place everywhere. The kisan unions have asked for Rs.5,500 an acre. But it is difficult to predict the final rate in the prevailing circumstances. I personally foresee much greater use of mechanised sowing this season, though it has its detractors who claim it is not the same as a seed sowed by hand.”

Incidentally, Punjab is trying to gradually move away from water-guzzling paddy cultivation. The government encourages the cultivation of cotton, maize and basmati.

That is in the long term. In the short term, the economics of paddy farming may be the first casualty of the prolonged lockdown and the consequent labour exodus. It will not be the only one for sure. There are reports of more than four lakh labourers from construction sites and brick kilns preparing to take the train home. Effectively, that spells an end to construction activity in the immediate future after the lockdown is lifted. The manufacturing units of Ludhiana are next in line to feel the crunch. Dependence on local workers with better bargaining power will push up wage bills and hence production costs at a time when manufacturers hit by the economic downturn are looking to cut costs.

In this conflict of interest, the administration has had to step in to broker peace. There have even been attempts to retain at least some of the migrant labourers. Recently, Sangrur’s Deputy Commissioner Ghanshyam Thori conducted a video conference with organisations working in the interest of small and medium industrial units of Sangrur. He asked them to accommodate as many migrant labourers as possible in factory units. The Sangrur move, however, was too little, too late. As more than eight lakh migrants had registered to leave Punjab for Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by May 4, their respective State governments had to ask the Punjab government to go slow. As for paddy sowing, the fate of the crop may well be decided by the bargain struck at panchayat meetings in the days to come.

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