Updated: June 4, 2020 11:14:06 am
As Punjab fast approaches the date to begin paddy transplantation on lakhs of hectares, the state’s farmers are caught between missing migrant labour from UP and Bihar and those available locally demanding much higher than usual wages for the skilled operation.
For paddy sowing, Punjab needs nearly 6 lakh migrant labourers to complete the task. This year only 5 to 7 per cent of the required migrants are available for this work in the state due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
In such conditions, Punjab’s local ‘khet mazdoor’ (farm labourers), who are over 15 lakh in number, have been demanding between Rs 4,500 to 5,500 per acre for the job (the amount is split between number of workers who complete the task per acre), which is a hike of 25 per cent to 53 per cent compared last year’s rate.
In Punjab, the usual rate for paddy transplantation ranged between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,600 per acre depending upon the region till last year.
This has led to hundreds of panchayats, particularly in the Malwa region of Punjab, pass resolutions to cap rates for paddy transplantation in their respective villages between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 per acre. Some of these panchayat resolutions also mandate imposing a fine of up to Rs 50,000 on farmers not abiding by the diktat and paying more.
The move comes even as farmers have been mulling over bringing labour from UP and Bihar after easing of transport restrictions. But that too poses a challenge as due to involvement of multiple state governments for requisite permissions and the rise in cost of transportation due to travel norms like social distancing on vehicles in place which would entail engaging more vehicles.
Paddy sowing starts on June 10. Punjab is expected to sow paddy on around 28-29 lakh hectares (71 lakh acres), including around 7 lakh hectares of Basmati rice this year. The paddy transplanting operation lasts for 20 to 25 days in Punjab and after that Basmati sowing starts which wraps up by July end or early August.
Local ‘khet mazdoors’, meanwhile, are confident that they can fill the labour gap. “We are 15.50 lakh in number in Punjab and will handle paddy transplanting very well here,” said Lachman Singh Sewewala, president, Kheti Mazdoor Union, Punjab, adding that sowing may get delayed by some time, but it will be completed.
But his confidence is not shared by farmers on the ground. Instead of depending on local farm hands, a large number of farmers have already gone for the Direct Seeding of Rice (DSR), a technique which was available to them for over a decade but was not preferred much due to easy availability of migrant labourers.
The reason for opting for DSR over using local labour this year, most farmers argue, is that while one half of available ‘khet mazdoors’ do not know proper paddy transplantation technique, the other half is unlikely to match the speed of skilled migrant labour in the field to complete the job on time.
Prof Kesar Singh Bhangu, Economics professor at Punjabi University, Patiala and an expert on farm issues, said: “Local labour can do normal farm activities but when it comes to peak farming activities like harvesting and paddy translating then they are not able to work.”
About the tussle over wages, he said:”Farmers should pay what they have been paying in previous years and the gap amount should be paid by the government either from NREGA funds or from labour welfare board funds.”
Jagmohan Singh, general secretary, Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) Dakaunda, said:”As per our initial estimate around 35 to 40 per cent, farmers will go for the ‘DSR’. We need labour for transplanting paddy on around 45 lakh acres, which can be done by our khet mazdoors.”
But for even this labour gap to be filled farmers and the ‘khet mazdoors’ have to find common ground on wages.
“In our area, a large number of village panchayats have already passed resolutions capping the per acre rate. An increase of Rs 200 to Rs 300 per acre is acceptable, but local khet mazdoors are demanding a hike of Rs 900 to Rs 1800 per acre,” said BKU Ugrahan leader Jagsir Singh from Bathinda.
Lachhman Singh Sewewala, who heads the Kheti Mazdoor Union in the state, however, justified the higher rates being demanded. “Every year the rates are increased and if we are increasing them this year, they why are some farmers making it an issue and involving panchayats? At least 6 persons are required to transplant paddy on one acre in one day and if they will get just Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 then each one among them gets only Rs 400 to Rs 500 as their share. However, if the same work is done by three migrants in one day on one acre, then they earn Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 as their per person share.”
He added: “Panchayats have no legal right to pass such resolutions, they are only provoking labourers. Let farmers and labourers decide rate between themselves.”
Farmer leaders also want the regulations for transporting labourers from outside the state eased.
“The government should simplify the process of bringing in migrants…First the transportation cost will go up as more vehicles will be involved due to social distancing, then they will be off work till June third weak because of two-week quarantine. By the time this ends, almost half of the paddy sowing period would be gone,” said Jagmohan.
Migrants who work in paddy fields are ready to come too, but want farmers to facilitate the transportation.
Suman Kumar, a labour contractor from Bihar’s Supaul district who supplies labour to Sangrur district of Punjab every year, said: “In the absence of regular trains, it will Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 to bring a single migrant to Punjab depending upon the distance. But if vehicles are sent by farmers to bring them here, they will come immediately.”
Putting the entire problem in perspective, farmer Gurbakhshish Singh from Patiala, said: “Punjab khet mazdoors have been available here for decades, but still farmers preferred migrants because of their expertise. But this time we have to depend on local mazdoors.
Everyone argues that if wheat procurement was done successfully in the absence of migrants, then paddy sowing will also be done without any trouble. But you have to understand, both operations are different and require different skills.”
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