“Gaadi kab chalega? Hum ko ghar jaana hai (When will trains run? We want to go home),” says 20-year old Ashish Kumar, of Puraini village in Saharsa’s Bihar, currently stuck in Mohali.
This is not Ashish’s first time in Punjab – he has been to the state twice earlier, to harvest wheat and then stay back for paddy transplantation. However, this time, he does not want to stay.
Ashish is part of a group of 12-odd farm labourers from Saharasa district harvesting wheat in the fields of Chappar Chiri. They are working in the shadow of the Chappar Chiri war memorial – built to commemorate the fierce battle between Sikh and Mughal armies in May 1710, when the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan, was given a resounding defeat, thus sounding the death knell of Mughal rule in Punjab. But for Ashish and his fellow labourers, the battle is against hunger.
“We came to Punjab five days before the lockdown. Aur bas phass gaye (And just got stuck here). We have not been getting any jobs either. Today is just our third day of harvesting and by tomorrow, we will be free from this too,” says Ashish.
Making around Rs 400 per day on an average, the group members say they make just about enough to cater to their needs.
“We have gotten virtually nothing from the government. Only 4 kg rice was given to us, many days ago, for all 12 people. After that, nothing. We told the sarpanch of the village to give us ration the government is distributing, but received nothing,” says Bimal, another from the group.
The lockdown due to COVID-19 and the constant worry of family members makes them want to head home as soon as possible.
“Hum majboor hain. Paidal bhi to nahi jaa sakte ghar. Station, station par rok rahi hai sarkar aur vahin baitha deta hai (We are helpless.We cannot even go back home on foot. At every station (town), govt is stopping people on road and making them stay there),” says Mukesh.
This year, the number of labourers coming to Punjab for work during the harvesting season has been far smaller, and those here want to go back. Farmers are fretting they don’t have enough labourers for the work.
However, agriculture and food specialist Devender Sharma dismisses the notion that the shortage of farm labourers will seriously affect the wheat harvesting or subsequent transplanting of paddy.
“Present experience has shown that farmers have been quick to adapt to the situation. Their family members, who had stopped working in the fields, are now harvesting. Youths who were driving Ola or Uber cabs are also working in the fields because they cannot drive now. The same will happen during paddy transplantation. The farmer has no other alternative because wheat and paddy is what he earns his living from,” says Sharma.
The labourers say they have been beset by phone calls from their relatives back in Bihar. “Sab keh rahe hain wapis aa jao. Par gaadi chale tab na,” (everyone is saying come back. But the trains should run for that) says 20-something Vikram.
A few hundred meters away, near the 328-foot ‘Fateh Burj’ (Victory Tower) erected to commemorate the victory over the Mughals in the battle, another group of Bihari labourers is busy filling sacks of grains in the makeshift grain market – also waging a battle against hunger, and longing to go home.