“Sade tan iss vari khet hi khali reh jaane aye (Our fields might stay barren this year). The labour that was here has already left, and those who wanted to come here cannot make it due to the lockdown,” said Balwant Singh Boparai from Ludhiana’s Ghudani Kalan village. Boparai isn’t the only one worried about the migrant exodus ahead of paddy sowing season.
A Jalandhar farmer with 150 acres of land, Raju Chawla, said: “Till last week, I had around 40 farm hands. As of today, I have none….and I am forced to go for Direct Seeding of Rice (DSR) sowing technique.”
About using local labour, Boparai added that while three migrant workers plant paddy in one acre in one day, the local labour takes three days to do the same amount of work.
In Punjab, around 28-29 lakh hectares area is expected to come under rice this season for which the state would need over 6 lakh labourers from UP and Bihar. The labour for paddy sowing comes tod Punjab arounthis time every year.
But due to the lockdown, this migrant labour can’t come, so farmers were counting on those who had arrived in January and February for potato and cane harvesting to stay back and do the job. Farmers who spoke to The Indian Express on Wednesday said that among this group which is already here only around five per cent are willing to stay back.
Until last week, most migrant workers returning in Shramik trains that started since May 5 were industrial labour and daily wagers. But now a large number of workers engaged in farms have started registering, with farmers claiming that they were headed for difficult times.
“From Malsian area (Jalandhar), over 1,000 farm labourers have gone back to UP, Bihar and West Bengal in the past one week. They had come here to harvest potato and sugarcane, the harvesting of which ended in March and then they worked in wheat mandis during lockdown. But now they are returning,” said farmer Harpreet Singh of Sarai Khan village.
He added that some were staying back as farmers were willing to pay a premium to retain them. “Earlier the rate was Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500 per acre for paddy transplanting but this time they will not charge less than Rs 5,000 to 6,000 per acre,” he said.
Kulwinder Singh Bolina, Sarpanch of Bolina village, said that their village had managed to stop around 150 farm labourers ahead of paddy transplanting.
“A large number of farm labourers from UP and Bihar have already left from surrounding villages and now farmers are in a panic at the time of paddy sowing,” he said.
Those staying back appeal to others
Kailash (28) is one among the few who have decided not to go back to his native place in Bihar’s Saharsa district.
“Ghar par kya rakha hai. Koi kaam nahin hai vahan. Yahan to hume lagatar kheti-badi mein kuchh na kuchh kaam milta hi raha. Abi turhi banaya, aur 10 June se jiri lagaenge. Sabhi dekha dekhi ja rahe hain, dimaag se soch nahin rahe hain. Vahan par bhi quarantine hona padega. Agar yehan khet mein kaam hai to kayon jana ab mushkil waqt to beet hi gaya jab (Why should we go back? There is no work there. Here, at least, we are getting regular work in the farms. We made fodder from wheat straw, and now paddy transplantation will start from June 10. Everyone want to leave with the herd, no one is thinking straight. They will be kept in quarantine there. At least, here they can work,” he said.
A farm labourer at Jalandhar’s Sarai Khan village who has been coming to the district for work for the past 15 years, he adds that he had registered for a Shramik train, but has now changed his mind due to paddy sowing.
Like Kailash , Mohammad Ismail from Bihar, who is currently working at village Dhadda Haripur, said that he too has decided to stay back.
“My Sardar Ji (landlord) has requested me to stay back till the paddy transplantation is not complete,” he said.
Md Ismail also urged other farm workers to stay put. “If I leave for home today, they will quarantine me for two weeks, and I cannot come back for the paddy season. This time will pass. Labourers should not panic and leave. They should just be alert against this disease,” he added.
False start for 60 migrants
Meanwhile, over 60 migrant labourers, including around 20 women and children, were brought to Jalandhar railway station for boarding special Shramik train to Bhagalpur in Bihar, only to be told after their Covid screening that they cannot board the train due to non-availability of berths. The group remained stranded outside the station for 7-8 hours before they were taken back to Patara village in the afternoon.
“Last night, we got a call from the police station that we have to leave for railway station early morning for boarding the train to Bhagalpur. We went to the police station in the wee hours and from there they brought us to the registration centre and after our medical, we were made to sit under a tent outside railway station as the train was to run at 11 am,” said Suresh Mandal, adding that they had received no SMS about their train journey after their registration on the Punjab government portal, but they had got calls from the police station last night.
SHO, Patara, Inspector Daljit Singh, said that they got calls from the senior civil and police authorities to bring the migrants there. “Later, we came to know that there were no seats available, so we brought them back.”
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