India, among the world’s largest economies, has more than 200 million people going to bed hungry.
It is among the world’s top food producers; yet, it faces a chronic undernourishment crisis with 16% of its population malnourished compared to the global average of 8%. The dominant capitalist discourse enables the treatment of the symptoms of hunger with excess production, while ignoring the deeper causes of that poor diet.
This series, ‘Made Hungry in India’, traces the structural causes of hunger and food insecurity in inequalities in power. It examines the solutions the State is offering to ask what their true meaning for people and the climate.
New Delhi: Rajkumari Devi frowned and pursed her lips looking at the heap of potatoes in front of her. She had sat cross-legged for the last eight hours on the grey concrete floor surrounded by gunny bags at the potato shed in Azadpur mandi, a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in northern Delhi, and had several hours of work to go. For every 50 kilos of potatoes Devi sorted with her hands as per their size, she earned Rs 15. On a good day, this totaled to Rs 150 or Rs 200, a third of Delhi’s minimum wage of Rs 660 a day. That day had been exceptionally hard: it was her first day back at work after her 26-year-old son, a factory worker, had died after an accidental fall 20 days earlier.
She said her husband, who pushed a cycle cart to ferry vegetables at the mandi, was weak from repeated tuberculosis infections. After their son’s death, her husband felt too broken, she explained, but they had few savings, no time to grieve, and someone had to go on. “Traders who own the wholesale potato stock sometimes allow me to take a few pieces home, free of charge. So, I came back to work,” said Devi, a tall woman in 50s, her shoulders bent from three decades of working at the market for meagre pay. “My family survives on these potatoes and the wheat from our ration card. We can barely afford anything else.”
In the adjoining vegetable sale shed, 32-year-old Shiv Kumar Paswan – a head-loader or palledaar – had a slight build and piercing eyes. He said he had worked at the Azadpur mandi, India and Asia’s “largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market”, since he was 14 years old. He belongs to a landless family of a Dalit caste in Harnaut, Nalanda. He lifted vegetable loads on his back and his head seven to eight months of the year, and lived in his village in Bihar the rest of the months. Paswan said even this largesse which Devi spoke of – a few grams of vegetables at the end of sorting and lifting vegetables all day – was not available to all workers.
“If you work as a ‘parchoon’, freelance – a head-loader carrying vegetables on the back and paid at piece rate or per trip you make, and if you are not a regular at any one vegetable shed or affiliated with a trader or a commission agent – you cannot expect them to let you have even a few grams of vegetables,” Paswan said. That day since early morning, he had lifted and carried on his back 30 sacks of varying weight of 20 to 90 kg each, of drumsticks, pumpkin, gourds, carrots, spinach. For this he earned barely Rs 15 to 20 per trip.
“I cannot afford to buy and eat fruits or vegetables from these scanty amounts,” he said, explaining how workers carrying and sorting food all day for the city’s residents remained underfed, and can barely afford a decent meal.
What of workers after the farmers’ protests?
At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, tens of thousands of farmers and peasants occupied the edge of New Delhi for more than a year until the Union government was forced to repeal three new agricultural laws.
Among the laws the Modi government passed as “reforms” was one which led away from a system where farm produce is transacted at government-regulated agriculture market yards, or mandis, such as the one in Azadpur in Delhi. Modi argued that new laws to liberalise the agriculture sector would liberate the small farmers, as well as poor and low-income consumers such as Devi.
Small farmers (over 80% of India’s farmers own less than two hectares agricultural land) opposed these changes, saying it would pauperise them, and led successful protests for withdrawal of the new laws. They were backed by some of the most marginalised, including landless daily-wage workers and palledaars who lift and sort agriculture produce in government-sanctioned market yards. They contended that the “reforms” would dismantle their livelihoods, and the amendments altering the essential food markets would make them further vulnerable to extreme rise in food prices.
More than a year after the farmers’ protests forced the government to retreat, not much has changed for mandi workers, said union representatives.
“We were at the Delhi morcha for days and joined the protests. But even after the farm laws were withdrawn, we are still fighting for changes in our pay and living conditions,” said Makhan Singh, a member of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, which aims to improve access of landless Dalits to reserved common lands in villages, and organises piece-rate workers, palledaars, in mandis.
The unions say the protests and the accompanying discussion around farm regulations opened a space and an opportunity for actual reforms in the government-sanctioned market yards, and in the conditions of the poorest mandi workers.
“The debates from the farmers’ protests must be built upon to structurally reform the system and improve the lives of these workers,” argued Prakash Kumar, of the union National Hamal Mahapanchayat (NHP).
He stated that this would be possible through a law especially focused on mandi workers that provides essential benefits such as a weekly day off, a retirement provident fund, health and insurance cover, regulated overtime pay and safe working conditions. He added that such a law was already drafted and has been pending with the Delhi government for four years now. “The Delhi government invited public comments on the mandi workers Bill in 2019. But since then, it is in cold storage,” said Kumar. He advocated that the Delhi government pass the law to directly assist the tens of thousands of workers who sort and manually lift agricultural produce in nine government-sanctioned farm produce markets in Delhi, ensuring food and nutrition for most of northern India.
Despite their vital role in the food system, the mandi workers are in a legal vacuum. Delhi’s labour department does not fix or periodically revise minimum wages for these workers, as they are not covered in 29 “schedules of employment”, or categories of work under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Even though several workers have worked at the same mandi for decades, and in some instances even with the same agricultural trader, labour officials described them as “self employed”.
When asked about the status of social security legislation drafted for mandi workers, additional labour commissioner S.C. Yadav refused to give an in-person interview. He directed The Wire to officials in the department’s legal division.
The officials in the legal division said the draft Bill was pending because but the Union government had passed four labour codes, including Code on Social Security, in 2020. “When we sent the Bill to the law department, they said when the Centre has made a general welfare law, then why do these workers need a special law,” said the Delhi government official. Though the Union government had passed these Codes in 2020, these are yet to be implemented and several states including Delhi are yet to frame rules to implement them. Officials had no clarity on when the Code may be enforced.
Lifting food at starvation wages
At Azadpur, annual trade worth over Rs 12,000 crore in 45,00,000 tonnes of fruits and vegetables from several states is done in three market yards spread over 100 acres. The mandi was set up in 1976. A body set up by the government, the Azadpur Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC), governs all its economic activities, trade as well as conditions of work at the mandi.
Union representatives and workers estimate that around 50,000 women and men work at Azadpur market, carrying, loading, unloading, stacking and weighing the farm produce. In response to a Right to Information request, the Azadpur APMC, stated that till 2021 it had recognised only 1,277 such workers, and issued “G Category” licenses to them to carry out paid work at the market yard. A vast majority of the workers work directly with the agricultural traders, the commission agents.
The workers say that they get paid a pittance and their wages are not revised periodically. Under Rule 36 of the Delhi Agriculture Produce Marketing (Regulations), 2000, the APMC is required to fix a fee or wages for the workers. But the APMC confirmed in response to a Right to Information request that it last revised these pay rates officially in 1980, now 43 years ago, even as the cost of living has gone up manifold.
In 1980, for instance, the APMC had fixed that to unload a 50kg sack of potatoes, a worker would earn Rs 1.20, and for onions, Re 1. The unions and workers point out that the wages are “criminally low”, amount to exploiting the workers “akin to bonded labourers”, and are not revised because of collusion between the APMC officials and the traders – a charge which both rejected.
“It is not that we wish to starve the workers!” said Ram Baran, who heads the Potato and Onion Merchants’ Association of more than 150 wholesale produce traders, and is serving a second five-year term as a member of the APMC’s Delhi Agriculture Marketing Board.
“Though it is the government’s role to revise the pay rates, the traders revise the payment every couple of years in informal discussion with the workers,” Ram Baran told The Wire. “We usually increase their pay in alternate years – one year giving an opportunity of pay raise to the potato workers, and the next year to onion sector workers.” He gave an example: “Two-three years back, we increased the rates by Re 1 per sack for potato workers. Recently, we have been in talks with onion section workers.”
But it is obvious that the system is stacked against the workers, a majority of whom are landless migrants from Bihar, and have extremely limited bargaining power. The increase every few years which Baran mentioned consists of a mere 50 paise or Re 1 hike in a year. For instance, those working with potatoes, in the absence of any official increase by the government, have managed to negotiate their rate of payments from Rs 1.2 to only Rs 5 per sack in 40 years.
Examined along with the data on prices and inflation, Rs 1.10 in 1981 would be equivalent to Rs 16.20 now. The increase in rate of workers’ pay, which the traders’ association took credit for, is a less than one-third of what the payment rates ought to be when inflation, or rise in cost of living in the past four decades, is accounted for.
“What does it mean to earn Rs 4-5, when a kilo of wheat flour costs Rs 35? Who can survive on such terrible wages?” asked Rambilas Mahto, who is from Bihar’s Begusarai district. “Prices increase, but our wages do not. If we try to organise, the traders give us death threats; they ask, what is your motive, why are you speaking up.”
Mahto has carried head-loads of vegetables at the mandi for 35 years, including in 5-10-year continuous stretches for the same trader. He said in over three decades of work, in his memory, he had seen rates of pay for workers revised only four to five times. “They pay us Rs 5 for unloading a sack of potatoes from the trucks and if they need to weigh the gunny bags, they pay us an additional Rs 4,” he said.
Anil Kumar, a migrant from Khargaria in Bihar who has also worked as a palledaar manually carrying sacks of potato for over 30 years, said that in November 2019, the potato merchants had increased the workers pay by 50 paise, and before that they had done so – also by 50 paise – in 2016. “How it happened is that around 500 of us working in the potato sheds talked among ourselves and stopped work for a few hours. Following this there were negotiations, and the traders hiked the pay rate. But by merely a few paise,” he explained. “When we stop work and the trade profits suffer, they say things such as, ‘From now on we will consult you.’ But then it goes back to the same.”
He continued, “They don’t even speak to us as if we are humans. They call us out shouting “Abey” or “Oye”. They shun using our names even if we have worked in the same shed with them over 30 years.
They fear addressing us by name will lead to us being identified as working for them, and to them being accountable to us as employers.”
“The well of death”
On an afternoon in May, as the temperature turned 42 degrees, a scorching sun bore down from the skies and the ground underneath radiated heat.
Work goes on at the mandi 24 hours, in two shifts. Even at the hottest hour of the day, the roads were packed with men, women, hand-carts, lorries and trucks. Women crouched on the ground sorted produce by hand, or made stacks in the shade of parked trucks. The men in loose clothing with their head and shoulders covered with a towel or a scarf pulled narrow, long carts laden with dozens of gunny bags filled with produce. A few walked, carrying sacks on their backs, or on their heads, or carried the gunny bags on their backs walking up slabs of wood placed on the floor of the large sheds where vegetables were stacked into the trucks.
“I weigh 40 kg, but I lift 90 kg!” said Rajbalam Paswan, a young man who had dark eyes and sunken cheeks. Paswan, like several other parchoon workers – paid from task to task – belongs to a landless family of a Dalit caste from Chakhawan in Bihar’s Nalanda district. He recounted that he had followed his older brother into this work. On his back, he wore a pitthoo hand-made from pieces of gunny bags as protection. Without it, the heavy loads he lifted through the day would peel skin off his back. “Palledars like us are the cattle of these markets,” said Paswan.
For categories of labour for which the government fixes minimum wages, the 15th Indian Labour Conference (an annual event organised by the Ministry of Labour and Employment to decide on workers’ issues) of 1957, recommended fixing minimum wages based on per capita food intake of at least 2,700 calories for a worker’s family of three members. The National Institute of Nutrition recommends that those doing “heavy work” such as the men and women doing manual in the mandi, need access to even higher, 2,850-3,490 calories a day, including 55 to 60 gram a day of protein, 20-25 gram fat, 600 milligrams a day of calcium.
When asked how often he ate vegetables or fruits in meals, Paswan simply shook his head. In the last ten years doing the back-breaking work, he said, he saw himself lose weight year after year.
Ramashray Paswan, 55, a head-loader who had come to Azadpur in 1987, was working a second shift. He had started unloading gunny bags at 11 pm the previous night. It was now 4 pm. It had been 17 hours of work, with a short break for a meal of rice and soya, he recounted. His eyes were red, he looked worn out. Paswan recounted that he had worked all his life as a parchoon, and then the last two months, he had found a chance to work affiliated with a particular trader or agent who would pay Rs 5 per sack for a bulk of sacks in a truck. But this did not mean a regular income. “Today no new produce trucks have come in, and the trader will make no payment. So, I started carrying and loading gunny bags as a parchoon at night and worked until now,” he said.
“It is difficult manual labour,” said Dhanraj Paswan, who was taking a few minutes’ break sitting atop gunny bags of onions he had stacked for over the past 10 hours. “The way earth dries up, our bodies too get dry and parched in the heat.”
The head-loaders explained how they carried excessively heavy loads, much more than 50 kg, which was the government norm for weight permitted in the gunny bags. The workers said that traders who pay per piece of a gunny bag of produce had an incentive to fill each bag with more at the same price. “The merchants claim that the sacks contain 50 kg. But in fact, they stuff 55- 60 kg produce in one bag, or several kg extra,” said Jorawar, who is over 55 years old and has continued the work despite walking with a limp for the last five years. “We have carried these loads for years. We know what a 50 kg sack feels like. They force us to carry sacks that are 10-15 kg heavier.”
The market traders’ association pointed to tin roofs over the produce sheds and water outlets that had been provided as conveniences for the workers. But government doctors in the area told The Wire that mandi workers continued to suffer heat strokes as the rate of evaporation was higher compared to the rate of replenishment of their bodies with water and nutrients.
“The workers who visit the clinic often complain of haraarat fevers, muscle and joint pain. Nasal bleeding, which is a minor trauma, is frequent,” said a doctor at a local mohalla government clinic in Azadpur, who treats 3,000-3,500 individuals every month, living and working around the market yard and wanted to remain anonymous. He said though most workers were in the working age population, from their late teens to the 50s, several 60- to 72-year-old older workers continued even as the heavy loads sapped them and weakened their bones. “Arthritis is common among the workers, and also back pain, osteoarthritis, prolapsed discs.”
He said that though he recommended they eat calcium and protein-based foods, treating this population of some of the city’s poorest workers over the past two years, he had understood that they would not be able to follow through with his prescriptions. “For joint pains etc. for instance, I instruct them to have cholecalciferol granules with a glass of milk. Then, often, they ask me, ‘Can we take it with water instead?’ Milk is a luxury good to them.”
He confirmed that those doing this difficult manual labour badly need protein-based foods, but these remained out of reach. “Milk-based proteins and animal-based proteins are costlier than regular food. They become khinn bhinn – malnourished – their muscle mass gets consumed and their bodies’ protein reserves are depleted.”
He stated that on the other end of the spectrum, among the workers battling hunger and scarcity daily, he saw an increasing dependence on alcohol. A few who found the stress, the abuse, the load of the hard manual work and scanty and inadequate food too exhausting had taken to alcohol, further increasing their chance of illness and early death.
Prakash Kumar, of the union National Hamal Mahapanchayat, pointed out that when the APMC authorities failed to issue licenses to even one-tenth of the workers labouring at the mandi, this created a void in regulation. With this, he alleged, the APMC officials tacitly permitted the traders or the commission agents – called so as they earn a “commission” of 6% on the sale of agricultural produce – to directly hire the workers and dictate exploitative terms and conditions of work. “Under the law, the workers are hired by the government,” said Kumar. “In practice, they are often hired directly by the commission agents or the traders, arhatiya. But the agents show them as self-employed, even as they frequently require them to work 24 hours, like bonded labourers.”
Over the years, the mandi workers have been sidelined from having a legal say in their terms of work or pay. Section 36(e) of the Delhi APMC Act provides that one member of the marketing committee of the mandi is “to be elected by licensed weigh-men and measurers”. Kumar pointed out that in 1998, under the previous Congress government, this provision meant to include workers’ voices in the market’s administration was removed from applying to “agricultural markets of national importance”, such as Azadpur.
Thus, for markets with size and volume of agricultural trade above a certain threshold, workers’ representation would no longer apply. The result is, in Azadpur, with over 50,000 workers as per unions’ estimates, workers have no representatives in the body governing the market, even as several workers recounted working round the clock at the traders’ beck and call.
In the potato sheds, the head-loader workers had hung their washed clothes to dry and had plates and cooking utensils stacked in corners next to the stacks of packed produce. In the onion shed, the workers, overworked, exhausted from the heat and lacking even a bed, lay on top of gunny bags of onions to catch a nap.
The workers said they felt pressured to guard the gunny bags overnight even as they had no fixed pay, as their piece rate payments varied based on how many trucks arrived, going to zero if no new produce had arrived that day. “If a single gunny bag goes missing, or even if stray cattle eat part of the produce, it will be deducted from our piece-rate pay,” said a worker, Mohammad Gulzar.
Mandeep Sahu, one of the workers, explained how they worked around the clock: “Trucks laden with the agriculture produce come here all through the night. For example, the Zaheerabad season – of a potato variety from Telangana from 3,000 km away – was on and those trucks would start arriving at 11 at night and continue till 3 am,” said Sahu. “When a truck arrives at the yard gate, the trader starts calling us on the phone, telling us to get up and unload the trucks.”
He continued: “Then at 4 am, we start stacking the vegetable bags out, presenting the samples for buyers. If a buyer comes at any time early in the morning, the trader asks us to take the stock out.”
“Sometimes they will ask to lift several sacks to take a few particular varieties – for instances, in potato there is Naya aloo, Chandausi, Chipsona – from the back of the trucks,” said Sahu. “It is very risky work as you are sleep deprived, exhausted and can even get crushed under the bags if not alert.”
APMC officials who spoke to The Wire responded that the legal changes over the years were made “to prevent cartelisation of labour” and that most traders preferred to privately hire workers, rather than work with those the mandi administration provided licenses to.
“Earlier, many times large cartels of workers would form and they would make the agricultural produce rot to press for their demands. They caused a lot of problems,” said APMC deputy secretary M.L. Pushkar. “The administration aims to have checks and balances.”
Pushkar added that though elections were held, a market committee had not officially been notified since December 2022. However, the APMC had earlier this year convened a meeting with various agricultural commodity associations to discuss wage revisions. “When asked about the wages, the traders submitted that workers approved of the wage rates. Even the minutes of the meeting mention that all labour associations are happy and they are getting good wages.”
He concluded, “A problem will show only if there is a problem, right? But there is none.”
Anumeha Yadav is an independent journalist reporting on labour and rural policy.
All photos by Atul Ashok Howale and Anumeha Yadav.