THE GOVERNMENT’S demonetisation move has led to an unexpected windfall for labourers working in Punjab’s grain markets. Many say that it’s perhaps the first time they have been paid in full before the end of the paddy procurement season, which lasts from around the first week of October till the end of November. Even if the payment was mostly in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.
“I deposited Rs 35,000 in the bank after getting my salary for October and November,” said Rakesh from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, who works at the main mandi in Jalandhar. “We were not depositing lakhs but a few Rs 1,000 notes, which was allowed by the government. This advance payment will now help me return home in December. Earlier, we had to spend that month here waiting for our payments.”
Bhupesh, from Motihari in Bihar, who has been working at various mandis in Punjab during the procurement season over the last five years, said that on November 12, four days after the demonetisation move was announced, he received Rs 40,000 as salary for October and November.
“I do not have a bank account so I put the money in the Jan Dhan account of my wife after getting some notes exchanged for new currency. One can deposit up to Rs 49,000 cash in Jan Dhan accounts,” said Bhupesh.
This year, there are around 1,830 paddy procurement centres in Punjab, with around 3 lakh labourers engaged in various jobs such as loading, unloading, cleaning, filling and stitching of filled bags in mandis. Government agencies undertake most of the procurement, and pay wages to workers through contractors and agents who supply manpower.
Before the demonetisation move kicked in, workers had to wait at least for a month after the end of the season to get paid their wages in full. They would be paid a portion of their first month’s wages in the first week of the second month of work, with the rest being paid after the government releases the procurement money to the contractors.
This year too, in the first week of November, workers who started working at these mandis by the end of September received only partial wages initially before the demonetisation move saw contractors and agents quickly settling all dues.
Kuldeep Singh, a labour contractor, said that before demonetisation, contractors had kept a huge stock of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes to pay the workers. “Those who had already withdrawn money from banks to pay the labourers were in a huge fix after the ban on old currency. That’s why they paid this amount to the workers immediately,” he said.
“This was not any unaccounted money. In mandis, a huge amount of cash is required to pay labourers so every contractor keeps some cash with him,” claimed Vijender Yadav, another contractor.
“Earlier, our payments used to be delayed for a month or more but this time the owner requested us to take old notes from him as advance wages. We agreed,” said Sahu, another labourer from Bihar, who works in Jalandhar.
As for the latest curb, limiting one-time exchange of old currency to Rs 2,000, he said, “I had already exchanged Rs 4,500 two days ago. I will not require any money for the next one month.”
Kalu Singh, who heads the Mandi Mazdoor Union in Jalandhar district, said that around 80 per cent of the 1,500 workers in the district have bank accounts and confirmed that contractors have cleared the payments of almost all workers for the entire two-month season.
Now it’s the turn of the labour contractors to wait for the state government to release payment, he said.
Ravinder Singh Cheema, vice chairman, Punjab Mandi Board, said the government is yet to release crores in payments due across the state. “In several mandis, including Sadak Mandi in Faridkot, Panje Ke Pamni in Firozpur, Chhinewal in Barnala, Banga in Nawanshahr and Gandma in Sangrur, payments have not been released since October 15. But work has not stopped in any mandi in Punjab. Our work is continuing through mutual understanding,” he said.