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The Covid nudge: Labour shortage makes Punjab, Haryana farmers switch from paddy to cotton

Paddy transplanting in the two states is done by over 10 lakh labourers, mostly seasonal migrants from Bihar and UP. There is uncertainty over their availability this time.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba , Harish Damodaran | Jalandhar, New Delhi |
Updated: April 30, 2020 9:29:49 am
Farmer Prithpal Singh Gill sowing cotton at his field in Haryana’s Sirsa district. (Express photo)

COVID-19 has opened a window of opportunity to wean away farmers in Punjab and Haryana from growing rice to less water-guzzling crops such as cotton and maize.

The driver: Uncertainty over the availability of an estimated 1 million labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who undertake the bulk of the paddy transplanting that begins from mid-June. That, plus the lack of mechanical transplanting options, in contrast to the ubiquitous combines used for both paddy and wheat harvesting, means fewer farmers are likely to take up rice cultivation in the coming kharif season.

Manjit Singh Sidhu has, for over a decade, been farming paddy on his 13 acres at Uddat Bhagat Ram village in Punjab’s Mansa district. But this time he has decided to sow cotton on 11 acres, limit paddy to 2 acres, that too, subject to getting enough local labour. “I finished harvesting wheat on April 20, and I am waiting for water from the Kotla Branch of the Sirhind Canal (on the Sutlej River). They (government) normally release it around April 30, which will enable me to plant cotton,” says the 43-year-old.

Shamsher Singh, from the same village, also plans to only grow cotton on his 8-acre holding, which was entirely under paddy until the 2019 kharif season. Jagsir Singh from Jhumba village of Bathinda district is going for cotton on four of his nine acres, again previously fully planted to paddy.

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“The people who transplant paddy are from Bihar and UP. Nobody knows if they will come. Even if the lockdown is lifted on May 3, train services are unlikely to resume soon and I cannot take a risk. While local labourers can be used, they will demand Rs 4,500-5,000 per acre, whereas the migrant workers charge only Rs 2,500,” he points out.

Southwest Punjab — mainly the districts of Mansa, Bathinda, Muktsar and Fazilka — was traditionally a cotton belt. Many farmers in recent times, however, switched to paddy, thanks to assured minimum support price-based procurement and free power supply for groundwater irrigation during the cropping season.

This was further supported by the availability of migrant labour for transplanting paddy seedlings, which are first raised in nursery beds for 25-30 days before being uprooted and replanted in the main field.

“It is a very labour-intensive operation. The plant population in paddy is about 33 per square metre, or 133,550 per acre. This is more than thrice the 40,000-odd plants per acre for cotton. Also, since paddy transplanting is in puddled (muddy standing water) conditions, there is both drudgery and difficultly in movement. A single labourer typically does around 10 acres from mid-June to mid-July,” explains A K Singh, director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi.

The roughly 43 lakh hectares (106 lakh acres) under paddy in Punjab and Haryana, translates into a requirement of 1 million-1.1 million labourers, an estimated 90 per cent-plus of them being seasonal migrants from UP and Bihar. With a question mark over their availability — they normally come by train in early June — transplanting could well be impacted.

While mechanical transplanting is possible in theory, it needs raising the seedlings in special mat nurseries or trays. “Farmers have gone in for mechanisation only in harvesting, where the combines are also manufactured indigenously and adapted to our conditions. The machines used in transplanting are largely imported and farmers haven’t felt the need for them when they could rely on migrant labourers. Necessity is the mother of invention,” adds Singh.

But labour shortage might this time prompt farmers to plant more area under cotton or maize. Crop diversification — weaning farmers away from paddy, with all its associated problems of groundwater depletion and pollution due to burning of the leftover stubble from harvesting by combines — is a strategy the Punjab and Haryana governments have for long tried to implement in vain.

It stands a chance now, at least in the old cotton belts of southwest Punjab and east Haryana (Sirsa, Fatehabad, Jind, Hisar and Bhiwani). In cotton, planting can be done by farmers themselves, employing family labour.

“We have set a target of 5.50 lakh hectares (lh) under cotton this kharif, against last year’s 3.92 lh. For maize, it is 3 lh, up from 1.6 lh. The overall paddy area should fall from 29.2 lh to 26.2. Within that, basmati acreage is to rise from 6.29 lh to 7 lh, while dropping from 22.91 lh to 19.21 lh for non-basmati varieties,” Sutantar Kumar Airy, director of Punjab’s agriculture department, told The Indian Express.

Basmati paddy consumes less water (it can be transplanted after June-end by when the monsoon sets in fully), is mostly manually harvested (entailing no burning of standing stubble) and is a source of foreign exchange ($ 4.71 billion exports in 2018-19). IARI’s Singh feels there is a strong case for arranging special trains to transport migrant labour for transplanting basmati over 18-19 lh: 7-8 lh in Haryana, 6-6.5 lh in Punjab, and 4-4.5 lh in West UP.

At Sukhchain village of Sirsa district’s Baragudha tehsil, Prithpal Singh Gill has already completed sowing cotton on 8 out of his 10 acres. “I harvested my wheat on April 13, sold it on April 25 and, in the mean time, started sowing cotton from April 22. On the remaining 2 acres, I will grow guar (cluster-bean), not paddy. Getting transplanting labour is going to be tough,” says the 26-year-old B.Sc in agriculture.

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