Punjab farmers miss Bihar’s helping hands

As shortage of Bihari farmhand begins to pinch, Punjabi farmers are welcoming them with open arms and better wages

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | August 27, 2010


A farmer welcoming migrant labourers at the Dhuri railway station of Sangrur with his package deal at the beginning of  the paddy season.
A farmer welcoming migrant labourers at the Dhuri railway station of Sangrur with his package deal at the beginning of the paddy season.

Bihar’s growth story – though 11 percent growth rate in the state GDP is being questioned now – has an interesting fallout: Punjab’s farmers are facing a severe labour crunch, especially during the peak season of paddy transplantation, which is a completely manual exercise and spans over the monsoon months of June and July.

So much so that the labour cost has nearly tripled in the last couple of years. While it may not matter much to the big farmers, it is a cause of alarm for others.

Jarnail Singh of Majhi village in Sangrur’s Bhawanigarh block is one of them. With 13 acre of fertile land, he has been growing mainly paddy in the kharif season. Having switched over to the basmati, which is sowed later than the other varieties, he had hoped for relief. But Bihar’s growth story has turned it into a nightmare.

“Last year, I had to delay transplantation for several days because the pravasi majdoors (seasonal migrants from Bihar) were not available. Eventually, when I got them, they charged Rs 1,800 for an acre of transplantation. This year, I found none and went for the local labourers who charged Rs 2,000 for the same work. Again I was late this year,” he says, narratinghis woes.

Until 2007, the pravasi majdoors were available for Rs 700-800.
Persisting labour trouble has forced Jarnail Singh to rethink. He wants to experiment next year either by going for direct sowing of paddy, as he does in the case of wheat by using a “seed drill”, or buy a Japanese transplanting machine.

The case of his neighbour, Zora Singh, who owns four acre of land, is no different. But instead of waiting for the migrant labourers, he simply hires the locals.

Ever since Punjab started growing paddy in 1975 (not a traditional crop), there’s no escape from the pravasi majdoors from Bihar who are considered experts in transplantation and harvesting. A large number of migrants have settled in the state permanently. Jarnail Singh’s uncle Major Singh, who owns more than 30 acre of farm land in the same village, has hired one of them, Mandal Pal, for Rs 38,000 for the year. With the labour becoming dearer, Major Singh had to pay Rs 10,000 more to retain him than what he had paid him last year.

Pal, 32, came to live with his parents on the outskirt of Majha village ever since he was four. His father Ramji and mother Radha Rani migrated to Punjab decades ago from Saharsa in Bihar. “Bhukhe marte the. Khane ko dana nahin milta tha (we were starving, didn’t have a grain to eat),” says Radha Rani about the circumstances that forced them to migrate. Now, they have houses, one of which the government built under the Indira Awas Yojna, ration cards and plenty of work.

According to a study by the Punjab Agriculture University, there are about 4,21,000 permanent migrant labourers in Punjab, of which 90 percent are from Bihar. M S Siddhu, head of the economics department who supervised the study in 2006-07, says the number of migrants doubled to 8,50,000 during the peak season (at the time of paddy transplantation). But in 2009 and 2010, the peak number has gone down to nearly 600,000.

“Look at the growth rate of Bihar, which is much higher than Punjab’s five percent. The NREGS has also started. That is why the number has come down,” he explains.

Used as they are to these migrant labourers, Punjab’s farmers are finding it difficult to cope with the change. No wonder some of them, from Bhawanigarh block, lined up at the nearby Dhuri railway station in mid-June  to welcome the pravasis disembarking from trains with placards that read: “Welcome to Punjab for paddy transplantation with free boarding and lodging, mobile phones and TV sets.”

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