Jaipu Sharma is anxious for train services to resume. “If they start running today, I’ll be the first to board and reach my destination tomorrow,” says the 30-year-old farm worker.
That is a sentiment voiced by many migrant labourers stranded in other states and out of work amid the nationwide lockdown. But Sharma’s journey is the reverse — from his village of Singhpur in Rupauli block of Bihar’s Purnia district to “anywhere in Punjab” for work.
“I spend 8-9 months of the year in Punjab. I would have been busy harvesting wheat there now. Instead, I am stuck harvesting rabi maize here, which pays Rs 200-250 daily, and the work will be over in the next 10 days. There, I get Rs 350-400 and the landowners also provide 5 kg of dry ration (flour, dal, salt and spices) per acre,” he says, speaking to The Indian Express over phone.
At his village in Bihar since mid-January, Sharma was to return to Punjab by April 1, in time for wheat procurement. Now, he is keen not to miss out on paddy transplanting that starts mid-June. “The government has declared that farming activity will continue even during lockdown. But for that, labourers have to be allowed to move. How can transplanting happen without us? They should start sending trains from here. All the workers in my village are ready to leave for Punjab,” he says.
On April 30, The Indian Express reported how Punjab and Haryana are facing the prospect of a shortage of up to 1 million labourers from Bihar and UP, who undertake the bulk of paddy transplanting operations in the two granary states.
Sharma says he has been coming to Punjab for the last 15 years, working mainly for Gurmail Singh of Dhadda Haripur and Bagga Singh of Khichipur, both villages in Jalandhar. “I harvest their wheat in April and spring maize by early-June, before taking up paddy transplanting till July-end. I also sow potato in early-October and harvest by end-December. In between, I do loading work at the APMC mandis during the paddy procurement season from mid-October to November. I am at my village only in January-March,” he says.
Like Sharma, Manoj Kumar (24), too, is landless and restless. He, and 11 others from Sisauwa village in Shahjahanpur in central UP, are counting the days after the lockdown was extended for two more weeks from May 4.
“I make Rs 35,000-40,000 from transplanting paddy over 40 days, mainly for Dharmendra Singh and other farmers of Ugrahan (in Sangrur). We don’t know what lies in store this time. The government is arranging trains for migrant workers to return to their homes. Why can’t the same be done for those wanting to go back for work?” he asks.
Paddy transplanting is normally done by labourers in groups. “Six of us can cover two acres daily or 60 acres in a month. At Rs 2,500-3,500 per acre, the rate varying depending on supply and demand, we earn Rs 25,000-35,000. The landowner takes care of our food and housing next to the tubewell in his field,” says Kumar.
Suman Kumar Mandal has five acres of jointly owned land at Parsagarhi village in Bihar’s Supaul district. The 25-year-old’s main income source, however, is from supplying over 50 labourers to farmers in Sangrur. “I had booked all their tickets on a Garib Rath Express for March 25. The landowner (Raghbir Singh from Kanoi village) is now calling me daily, asking how he would transplant paddy on his 18 acres. The government should start special trains immediately, so that enough labourers can be brought by early-June without risking spread of the virus,” he says.
Mandal stays mostly in Punjab and goes to his village around February to recruit farm labour. His wheat and maize farming operations, and a small shop in the village, are managed by family members.
At the Shahkot APMC market in Jalandhar where he works as a labourer, Mohammad Naiyum is worried. Hailing from Narda village in Bihar’s Madhepura district, the 38-year-old speaks flawless Punjabi and is also in the business of arranging farm labour.
“I had brought 30 labourers from Bhagalpur, Purnia, Saharsa and Kishanganj for harvesting seed potatoes here in February-March. I could place them even after the lockdown at the APMC for the ongoing wheat procurement operations. But 20 out of the 30 now want to go back, as they aren’t comfortable with paddy transplanting. I need to replace them with 20 others who know this work. But getting them is practically ruled out,” says Naiyum.
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