Jaipur: It’s been raining for three days straight in Rajasthan’s Rawatsar. Local reports say the 15-20 mm rainfall recorded is the highest ever for the month of March.
For farmers whose crops are ready for harvest, this unseasonal rainfall is not the only problem. Bhim, a marginal farmer in Gandheli tehsil, Hanumangarh district, is unable to enter his water-logged farm. Looking at his barley crops from a distance, he says, “Thankfully, the wind speed is normal and I can still save my crop, but only if I am able to arrange a combine harvester machine. It would just take a few hours to harvest my crop and everything would be okay.”
Just like Bhim, farmers across north India, at this peak period of harvesting, are in urgent need of combine harvesters. However, during the national lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, there is no system in place for transporting these giant combine harvester machines that move across states.
In various states, farmers come together and form custom hiring centres (CHCs) for farm implements that let out combine harvesters on hire. Along with each harvester, an operator is also hired who knows how to operate the machine and more importantly, is able to repair the harvester that frequently breaks down during harvesting.
According to the Agriculture Skill Council of India (ASCI), the job role of a combine harvester operator involves “operating the machine to harvest the crop and taking up basic repair of the harvesting machine to keep it operational during critical harvest time.”
In India, combine harvesters and its operators mostly come from Punjab. Due to the restrictions on movement, neither the machines nor the operators are able to reach farmers.
Ram Kishan, at the CHC in Rawatsar, made a payment of about Rs 22 lakh to the Punjab-based Kartar Agro Industry Private Limited in February this year for a combine harvester machine. He was expecting the delivery in March. However, post the curfew in Punjab and the subsequent national lockdown, the police deployed on the borders are not permitting transportation of any kind.
Kartar Agro Industry Private Limited, based in Nabha, Punjab, has been dealing with combine harvester machines since 1975. Nirmal Singh, the company’s representative, said that they provide machines and servicing, including making operators available for every machine.
“To deliver the machine in Rajasthan, we need to cross three borders – Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan,” says Singh. “It’s really difficult to attain permission from three states and numerous districts for delivering combine harvester machines. All our operations have stopped.”
He also adds that spare parts of combine harvesters are found only in Ludhiana and other parts of Punjab. “Spare parts remain in huge demand from various parts of the country, especially during this harvesting period of March, but this time we are not able to supply to any one,” he says.
Even the combine harvester operators hail from Punjab. Operators had returned to their homes when the lockdown was announced.
“Our company trains the operators to handle the combine harvesters and also deploys them to other states on hire. Most of the operators are Punjab based. Even they are not able to move across the Punjab border,” added Singh.
The combine harvester machines, which look a lot like tractors, are designed to carry out three important harvesting tasks – reaping, threshing and winnowing.
These harvesters are equipped with a header to cut the crop, a threshing drum that smashes the cut crop, and a separator that spilts grains (the edible part of the crop) from chaff (the inedible part).
Farmers in Rajasthan say that they have been using combine harvesters since 2013, as the manual labour cost is at least three times higher than the machine.
“If a farmer hires labour, then he has to pay Rs 400 to every labourer and the work requires some 25 labourers to harvest a crop in one hectare. This roughly means the farmer will have to pay about Rs 10,000 for harvesting one hectare of his land. On the other hand, if he hires a combine harvester, it costs only about Rs 800 per hectare,” Indraj, a farmer in Hanumangarh, explains.
The farmers have urged the government to not ignore farmers’ issues while containing the spread of the COVID-19, otherwise food supply will emerge as a major crisis for the country.
In an order passed by the Ministry of Home affairs on Friday, it has permitted the intra- and inter-state movement of harvesting and sowing related machines like combine harvesters and other agriculture/horticulture implements.
Following this order, Punjab agriculture secretary K.S. Pannu has written to all the deputy commissioners in the state to provide permission to the owners and operators of combine harvesters to travel outside the state.
However, for attaining permission from the state authorities for transporting combine harvesters and operators, it has been directed that the delivery person and operator of the combine harvester will have to undergo a COVID-19 test at the border.
“Only after the delivery persons would be found successful (negative) in the COVID-19 test, they would be allowed to enter,” reads a news report in Hanumangarh.
This has created panic among the owners and operators of combine harvesters. They are now not willing to risk their lives for providing the service.
“To reach different states, we cross a lot of borders. Does that mean we will be tested on every border? This test takes time, who will look after our machines? We are just not ready to take up any test, what if we get infected during the test?” said an operator who didn’t wish to be named.
Farmers, meanwhile hope their crops are not damaged beyond repair before the harvesters reach them.