The central government may have exempted movement of food – and also all operations in farms and agriculture produce market committee (APMC) mandis — from the provisions of the nationwide lockdown to ensure uninterrupted harvesting and marketing of crops.
But there’s a new problem springing up — shortage of labour in mandis. “This market has 6,000 hammal (loaders) and tolai (weighmen). Almost 60 per cent of them are from Marathwada or rural Pune and they left just before the Janata Curfew on March 22. How will they return now, when all transport services are suspended till mid-April?” asks Rohan Ursal, a leading fruit trader and secretary of the commission agent’s association at the APMC in Pune city.
Ursal’s association had suspended operations in the mandi on March 23 as coronavirus cases started rising in Pune. On March 27, the association decided to restart auctions at the market yard from April 1. However, Ursal is sceptical when that can happen — “How will this market work without labourers?”.
This isn’t an isolated case.
The dal mill of Kalantry Food Products outside Latur city has not been open for at least a week. “Most of our 200 workers are from Bihar and Chhattisgarh. They went on March 21, the day before the Janata Curfew. Getting them back is out of the question now,” says Nitin Kalantri, CEO of the company, one of India’s biggest pulses miller and trader.
Latur in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region has 100 mills that process tur (pigeon-pea), chana (chickpea), moong (green gram) and masur (red lentils). More than 80 per cent of their 2,500 labourers are from Bihar and other states. They managed to take the last trains home before the lockdown — unlike the lakhs of stranded migrant workers who had to trek long distances from Delhi and neighbouring industrial areas.
Kalantri claims that the images of what these workers have gone through and the fear of this lockdown not being the last have further fueled the insecurity among the few remaining labourers This, despite the Latur Municipal Corporation arranging food and temporary accommodation for them in schools.
At the Latur APMC — a major wholesale market for pulses and soyabean — the last auctions took place on March 20, which was a Friday. “The majority of our 6,000-odd labourers are from Bihar and Chhattisgarh. They have all gone and cannot return even if they want to. How can we run this market with a skeletal staff?” says an APMC official.
This situation — wherein trade and movement in food produce has been technically allowed but there is no labour available in mandis to unload, clean, weight and reload grain — isn’t specific to Maharashtra. According to Pavan Toshniwal, a dal trader at Karnataka’s Gulbarga mandi, 90 per cent of the APMC’s roughly 2,000 labourers have gone. They are all again from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The exodus actually began after March 13, when the first coronavirus-related death was reported from Gulbarga. The 300 or so dal mills in and around Gulbarga have also stopped running due to non-availability of labour.
Yogesh Agarwal, a dal miller and trader from Indore in Madhya Pradesh, says only 30 of the region’s 230 mills are currently running. “Even if farmers bring their chana or tur crop today, the APMC here will not be able to function as almost all the 1,000-plus labourers in the mandi have left for their home states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Bihar,” he states.
If marketing of the new rabi crop is going to be an issue, no less a roadblock is transportation of the produce to consuming centres, particularly in distant areas. “On paper, goods-carrying vehicles are allowed and it is possible that even the current hold-ups at state borders will go. But how many truck drivers would be willing to do long hauls when there are no roadside restaurants or dhabas? And what if their vehicle breaks down?” notes Kalantri.
The roadblocks, millers and traders believe, may squeeze the supply chain for agri produce in the days to come.
Also, for the first time, the importance of a vital link in this chain — the migrant labourer — is beginning to be felt.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines