Punjab: Labour Shortage in Lockdown Reveals Fissures in Farm Economy Ahead of Paddy Sowing Season

Panchayats and labour workforce unions have openly traded barbs over a move to cap paddy transplant wages in several villages.

Chandigarh: “This time paddy transplant rates in our village will not be more than Rs 2,700 per acre. If anyone pays more than what is decided, he will be fined Rs 5,000,” said an elderly man, as he addressed a gathering in Gharyala Kurd village in Punjab’s Taran Taran district, approximately 50 kilometres from Amritsar, in the presence of the sarpanch, Sukha Singh.

He went on to say that if the village labour workforce tried to oppose it, the entire village would support each other. “First they should complete transplantation in our village and then they are free to work elsewhere,” he added

Tarsem Peter, the president of the Punjab Pendu Mazdoor Union, who shared the video of the man in Gharyala Kurd village via a Facebook post on Sunday told The Wire, “How can the panchayat force labourers to work only in their village first? Can anyone also guarantee enough work for them? Why is the local administration and state government silent? It is nothing but naked faced bonded labour that is not acceptable to us.”

Owing to the labour shortage in Punjab, prompted by the mass exodus of migrant workers who went back to their native states after the coronavirus-induced lockdown led to job losses, the paddy sowing season that officially begins from June 10 faces an unprecedented crisis.

While the number of migrants who left the state on foot is unknown, a state government media release on May 29 said that 4.84 lakh migrant workers had been sent to their native states through 375 special trains.

This time around, as sowing depends heavily on domestic farm labourers who are demanding higher wages to stay afloat during the economic crisis prompted by the COVID-19 lockdown, several panchayats have passed resolutions in the last couple of weeks to keep transplant labour costs low, a move that has been strongly criticised by different labour unions as arbitrary, one-sided and unjust.

The issue is far more severe in the state’s Malwa and Majha regions, where farm holdings are comparatively smaller than those in the Doaba region, where farmers with large landholdings have managed to retain migrant labourers in their farms.

Farming organisations said that last year transplant wages were between Rs 3,000 and Rs 3,500 per acre in addition to other perks which included daily food and shelter, which was mutually agreed to by the landowners and paddy transplant workers.

Also read: Four Measures That Can Help Farmers Deal With the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown

The Wire accessed resolutions of many village panchayats in Patiala, Sangrur, Bhatinda and other areas which attempted to keep the paddy sowing labour cost below Rs 3,000 per acres.

Even though the panchayats of villages like Kharyal and Mehlan in Sangrur districts put these resolutions on hold after the matter reached the local administrations, the dispute is far from over.

Several videos showing farmers imposing wage rates ahead of the sowing season have emerged and these have reportedly created distrust between communities.

The Congress-ruled Punjab government on its part has not intervened in connection with this matter so far and top officials of the agriculture department have expressed their desire that farmers and mazdoors amicably decide on suitable wages at their own level.

However, the state government had advanced the paddy transplantation dates by ten days and promoted seed machines to offset the effects of the labour crunch.

But last year, only 60,000 hectares of paddy area was used under the Direct Seeding Rice (DSR) technology, against a total paddy cultivation area of 30 lakh hectares, including 6 lakh hectare of basmati area.

Migrant workers walk towards a bus station along a highway with their families as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Why do panchayats and farmers want to cap wages?

Farmers, who have already roped in labourers for costs as high as Rs 5,000 per acre for the timely completion of paddy transplantation, are worried about the increase in their production costs due to a shortage of manpower. Additionally, farmers have resorted to buying DSR machines to overcome the labour shortage which also increasing costs.

Ram Singh, the sarpanch of Kadarabaad village in Patiala district’s Samana block, said that an acute shortage of farm labour has forced panchayats to fix wages. “It is better if the state government runs special trains or allows us to fetch labourers back from Bihar or UP. Otherwise, we will face a lot of problems this paddy season,” he said.

Ram Saroop Sharma, the sarpanch of Gurusar village in Bathinda district’s Bhagta Bhai Ka block, said that labourers were asking for Rs 4,000-6,000 per acre as wages in his village. “We passed the resolution to keep wages at Rs 3,000 per acre that was also signed by several members of the labour community staying in the village. But they are not abiding by the commitment now,” he said.

Bhartiya Kisan Union president Balbir Singh Rajewal pinned the blame on mazdoor organisations for creating a rift between farmers and labourers. “I appeal to my fellow farmer brothers to amicably settle wages with our mazdoor brothers as we have an old cordial relationship. If it does not happen, we should go for mechanisation,” he said

“There will definitely be a lot of hue and cry this year due to the labour crunch but I think the dust will settle by next year with majority of transplanting happening through machines,” he added.

‘What about our survival?’

Responding to the allegations against farm labourers, Tarsem Peter said that the feudal mindset in Punjab continued to grip panchayats. “Don’t the poor labourers have a right to survive when there is heavy loss of jobs due to lockdown?” he asked.

Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSS), a body working for landless farm labourers in Punjab’s Malwa region’s Sangrur district, recently met the deputy commissioner and demanded that such arbitrary resolutions in the area be stopped.

The ZPSS president Mukesh Malaudh said that exploitation was continuing in areas where labourers are not united. Malaudh said that transplant jobs were mostly performed by unorganised labourers along with entire family members in search for additional income.

“A labourer typically earns approximately Rs 15,000 per paddy season. But things are different this time. A two-month-long draconian lockdown has brutalised the lives of Punjab’s landless farmers and unorganised sector labourers, much like the migratory population. They have no jobs in construction, service or industrial sectors. If that was not enough, there is now an attempt to keep their earnings from the paddy season also low,” said Malaudh.

He also said panchayats never intervened in such matters and didn’t have any right to fix it as per the law. “When there is no mechanism to fix minimum wages formula for farm jobs, it is better that the rate be decided mutually between the labour workforce and landowners,” he said.

Also read: Is the Agricultural Package Addressing Challenges Small Farmers Face in a Pandemic?    

Lachhman Singh Sewewala, president of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union based in Bathinda, said that the central government increased the minimum support price of paddy crop per quintal on Monday. “We believe it is not enough. But at least some hike was made from last year.,” he said.

“Similarly, if labour expects better wages than last year when other opportunities of earnings have dried, what is so wrong in it,” he said. He also added that panchayats in his area had passed illegal resolutions. “Some are even threatening a social boycott. If they flare up the problem further and stop labour from going out of villages, we will not let it happen,” he said

Lachhman said, “As per the 2011 census, the labour workforce in Punjab is close to 13 lakh and they are sitting at home. The paddy labour shortage can still be stemmed if the government further advances the transplantation dates.”

Jasbir Singh, a labour union leader from Taran Taran district’s Patti area, said that Punjab’s labour class, historically landless farmers, were always subjected to humiliation. “I want the state government to intervene and fix wages after talking to both sides. If it can’t happen, the district administration must intervene and stop panchayats from taking such one-sided decisions,” he said.

‘Wrong for state to act as mute spectator’

Kesar Singh Bhangoo, a professor of economics at Punjabi University in Patiala, said that it was wrong for the state government to act as a mute spectator when tension between farmers and labour workforce had flared up to this extent.

“There is a way out. The state can rope in the farm labour force under MGNREGA and pay them over and above what the panchayats decide. This way, both sides will be benefited,” he said.

A farmer in Punjab. Photo: CIAT/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

He also said that such problems had arisen because the centre’s so-called 20 lakh crore relief package didn’t have a provision for direct cash transfers to farmers or farm labourers. “The new paddy MSP rate is also not adequate for farmers to bear their rising cost of production,” he said.

Noted economist Sucha Singh Gill, on other hand, fears that the current standoff could lead to social tension. Gill said that Punjab had a long history of farm labourers facing a social boycott at the hands of panchayats or big landowners. “Problem arises when market forces are not allowed to operate freely. This must be checked,” he said.

Manjit Singh, a former professor of sociology and director at the Ambedkar centre at Chandigarh’s Panjab University, said that in India, class and caste often go hand in hand. “For instance, Jat as a caste, landowners as a class are coterminous and they are also politically dominated. On the other hand, the farm workforce is lower in caste and largely landless and has no say in the power centre,” Singh said.

He also said that this asymmetry often weighs heavily against the rural poor, particularly Dalits who form a major part of the workforce. He said since the dominant voice within the government was only concerned about the needs of its own caste and class and often overlooked the interests of the labour force. This, he said, was evident in the Punjab government’s move on May 1 to withdraw the hike in the minimum wage of labourers, citing an economic crisis in the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Punjab govt target: 10 times increase in mechanised transplantation

Sutantar Kumar Airi, Punjab’s agricultural director said that while he could not comment on the prevailing row between farmers and labourers, the government’s target this time was to increase mechanised sowing by ten times in comparison to the previous year.

“We hope that as much as 6 lakh hectares of the area will be sown under DRS technology, for which farmers are also being paid 40% subsidy on buying machines,” he said.

He further said that the department was also planning to reduce at least 3 lakh hectare of the area under paddy since the groundwater table in Punjab was at an all-time low. The use of water is also less under direct seeding technology.

Also read: Five Things the Govt Needs to Do to Mitigate Rural and Migrant Distress

The Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP) that decides the minimum support price of crops every year had shown its price policy report of 2015-16 that the average Punjab farmers used as much as 5,337 litres of water for irrigation to produce one kilogram of rice as opposed to 2606 litres for every kilogram of rice in West Bengal. Paddy farmers in Assam, Bihar and Odisha are also more water-efficient in comparison to Punjab.

“Although it is difficult to convince farmers to switch over to corn or cotton farming or even high rice basmati varieties, our teams are working on the ground,” said Airi.

He said that the department wanted ordinary paddy cultivation area to reduce from 23 lakh hectares in 2019 to 20 lakh hectares in 2020. “At the same time, we want the area under basmati, corn and cotton area to go up to offset the area loss,” he said.

A majority of the farmers in the past have stayed away from this technique and continued with manual farming because of a number of factors like easy availability of labour and safe results.

Airi said that with labour shortages looming large, DSR technology, which drills the seed right into the soil replacing the practice of manually transplanting saplings, appeared to be the best way forward. “We are also asking farmers to use their whear seeders for direct rice seeding after modification,” he said.

While the state government is confident of bringing more area under mechanical sowing, BKU (Dakunda) president Jagmohan Singh said that in the past they had discouraged directing seeding technology primarily because of a decrease in production by three quintals per acre. Some farmers who had used it also complained about an increase in weeds. “But this time, we don’t have many options left due to the labour shortage,” he said.

“There is apprehension among farmers due to inadequate knowledge and fear of reverting to manual transplantation if the seed is not properly sown. But many have already started preparing their ground under it. A rough estimate is that 30% area under paddy may come under direct rice seeding,” he said.

Paddy seed row

At a time when labour shortage was a big headache in the state, the irregularity regarding the sale of unauthorised and non-certified seeds ahead of paddy season has further created panic amongst farmers.

While state agencies are trying to figure out the exact damage of the ‘racket’, political opposition parties have already opened a frontal attack against chief minister Amarinder Singh who also happens to be the agriculture minister. So far one more person has been arrested, and another 12 dealerships were revoked for selling unauthorised non-certified seeds in and around Ludhiana from where the matter rose to prominence last month.

Punjab DGP Dinkar Gupta on Tuesday constituted a state-level Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the racket across districts.

Also read: Lockdown in Punjab: Panchayats Tasked with Feeding Poor, Landless Survive on Villagers’ Kindness

As per a government statement on Tuesday, one Baljinder Singh from Jagraon near Ludhiana, who is a member of farmers association formed by Punjab Agriculture University to give information to farmers about new seeds and techniques, was given the newly developed PR 128 and PR 129 of paddy seeds last year by the Punjab Agriculture University for sowing on a trial basis to assess the results. However, he used the resultant crop to mass-produce more seeds and sold them to the Ludhiana based Brar Seeds without authorisation, a firm that sold it further to farmers at higher rates. Its owners have been arrested along with Baljinder and others.

Ludhiana chief agriculture officer Narinder Singh Benipal pointed out that the sale was clearly illegal as trial seeds cannot be sold in the open market unless certified by the Central Seed Notified Committee.

Punjab Additional Chief Secretary (Development) Viswajeet Khanna said that some unscrupulous dealers seemed to be taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation, which had prevented the PAU from organising Kisan Melas to release seeds of superior varieties of crops.

PAU has been asked to change its protocols to ensure that in the future no person is able to procure under-trial seeds for unauthorised sale in the market, said Khanna.

Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has worked for several news outlets including The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune.