The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the agricultural economy of the Indian state of Punjab really hard. Punjab’s paddy farmers have traditionally relied on migrant agricultural labourers who are mostly natives of the state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Due to the pandemic, a large number of migrant labourers have returned to their native place causing a massive shortage of farm workers in Punjab.
Its impact became more severe as the paddy transplantation period was already around. Gurbachan Singh, a local paddy farmer told news agency ANI, "There is a shortage of labourers as the government sent back the migrant workers without proper planning."
The shortage of migrant workers forced the farmers to rely more on the local labourers. The local labourers used this opportunity to demand more wages which has resulted in almost doubling the labour cost. The migrant labourers used to charge around ₹2500 per acre for sowing paddy while the local ones were demanding ₹4000 per acre for the same work.
The village panchayat (Local village council) tried to fix the labour charges of ₹3,000 per acre which did not go down well with local labourers. This caused a dispute which even resulted in a clash between labourers and farmers where the shots were fired as well.
The labour shortage does not appear to be ending soon as most migrant labourers are not willing to come back. Viresh Kumar, a labour contractor from Sonbarsa in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district who supplies workers to paddy farmers in Phagwara, told ThePrint, “Workers from Bihar and UP either don’t want to come back to fields in Punjab or they want farmers or us to bear the cost of bringing them back, which is a very expensive and complex procedure now. Due to the lack of sufficient number of regular trains, the cost of bringing a single migrant to Punjab is around Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 per person.”
The shortage of cheap labour has forced the local farmers to start looking for some alternative which could maintain the economic feasibility of farming.also provided some benefit
Agricultural Secretary of Punjab government, KS Pannu noted that some of the farmers have started employing new technology to cope up with the labour shortage. "Farmers have sown paddy at around 5 lakh hectare land with Direct Seeding of Rice technology this year. Some farmers, however, shifted back to the puddling method for cultivation as they could not adapt to the technology," Pannu told ANI.
Manpreet Ayali, a member of Punjab State Legislative Assembly, and a wealthy farmer, says that this labour shortage is a blessing in disguise for the farmers as it would make them more self-reliant, rather than depending on labour for the transplantation season.
The shortage of cheap migrant labour has forced many farmers to cut down the area of paddy cultivation. Experts believe that due to the reduced area of transplantation the groundwater levels might improve in the state which tops the country in over-exploitation of groundwater reserves.
It is still too early to give a definite verdict on the long term impact of the COVID-19 on the agricultural economy of Punjab, but in the short term it is nothing short of a disaster for the local farmers.