Shortage of abourers from Nepal in Himachal Pradesh this harvest season is forcing apple growers to share manpower and engage family members and locals in their orchards. The situation has also led to a hike in daily wage rates for the limited number of workers who are available.
Apple growers in Himachal largely rely on seasonal labourers from Nepal to pluck, pack, carry and load and unload their crop. The hardy workers from Nepal are considered indispensable for carrying the produce from the orchard to the nearest road in the hilly terrain. But most of them were unable to arrive this year due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
“There is an 80 per cent shortage of labour in our village this year, posing a challenge to most growers. People are doing the hard work themselves now, and there are also a few labourers from within the state and from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” said Devender Katyal from Jabalpur villgae in Kumarsain.
He said that machines have made some of the tasks easier for the growers. “But the peak time of the harvest is yet to arrive here,” he remarked.
Prakash, a Shimla-based student, said that he went back home to his village near Rampur to assist the family during the harvest. “Labour was unavailable, so the whole family got involved and we’re done with the work already. The yield this time was also only half of last year, so it was easier for us. We sold around 60 boxes (about 1,500 kilograms) of Royal, Red Gold and Golden varieties,” he said.
Vijay Chauhan, an apple grower in Dhangvi village in Kotkhai, said that orchard owners in the area are making do by sharing manpower. “Some workers from Karsog have arrived here to help us in plucking the crop and packing it in boxes. Naturally, the daily wage rates have gone up. Now, it’s around Rs 600 per day as compared to around Rs 400 last year,” he said.
A Chail-based hotelier said that employees at his hotel rushed back to their villages in upper Shimla to work in apple orchards this monsoon due to lucrative wages being offered.
Chauhan, who cultivates apple on 90-100 bighas of land, said that he himself is not facing a labour shortage because he retained all his 20-odd workers during the winter. Usually, labourers from Nepal head back home during the winter season and come back around March, which is when the pandemic struck this year, disrupting the migration.
“Even I am not facing any shortage because workers in my orchard did not go back home. But the problem of inadequate workers looms large here,” said Rajiv, an apple grower from Kotkhai.
Some workers from Nepal have arrived in the state after the government allowed their entry. Rajiv said that a few workers arrived in his village around a month ago. In Dhangvi, too, around 30 to 40 workers from Nepal have arrived in private vehicles at the expense of the orchard owners, and are currently undergoing quarantine, said a resident.
The state government had earlier allowed migrant workers to proceed directly to the work sites where they could be placed under home quarantine. But current rules have made institutional quarantine
compulsory for the workers. This is because many of the Covid cases during the recent surge in Himachal were linked to migrant workers coming from outside, especially industrial workers in the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh area.
There have been cases among farm workers as well. In an apple orchard in Rohru, 18 people tested positive for the coronavirus last month, including the orchard owner and 17 workers who had come from Uttar Pradesh.
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