Punjab labour shortage: Rising scarcity of farm workers pushes up production cost, inclination towards machine farming

Although the Department of Agriculture, Punjab claims that the state is the food bowl of the country, the sector is increasingly facing a human resources crisis in the form of a growing migrant labour shortage, a sector that contributed 17.23 percent to the state GDP in 2016-17. The scene is no different either when it comes to the depleting migrant workforce in the state’s micro, small and medium enterprises. This is the first of a two-part series that attempts to study the impact of the shortage of workers in the agriculture sector.

Ludhiana: Free meals, payment in advance, free liquor to ease aching limbs after a hard day’s work. Migrant labour in Punjab, mainly from Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, the mainstay of the state’s agriculture sector, has never had it so good. The problem, however, is the decreasing availability of this labour. Ask Baljinder Singh, a farmer with a 10-acre holding in Dakha village. Come sowing season in mid-June, Baljinder parks himself at Ludhiana railway station, rushing towards the general compartment of arriving trains, to try and hire migrant workers for his farm.

Landowners like Baljinder flocking to railway stations across the state started some years back when government programmes like Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) led to a sudden shortage of labour available to work in Punjab’s farms and MSME units. Farmers like Baljinder now have to deal with a contractor who brings migrant labour in groups to Punjab for seasonal farming. Bargaining, not just over wages, but the extent of ‘luxuries’ the farmer can provide the workers, happens at the railway station itself. The highest bidder gets the labourers.

“The shortage of labour is increasing every year,” said Baljinder. “In 2011, they would sow paddy in Ludhiana for Rs 1,200 per acre, but now demand Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 per acre,” he said.

Punjab’s dependence on migrant labour began since the adoption of the wheat-paddy crop cycle during the Green Revolution. Then, migrant farm workers were plentiful and cheap, needed mainly for sowing the paddy and the lifting of wheat and paddy crop.

The shortage has raised labour costs

But conditions are somewhat better for them at home now, said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of Punjab State Farmers’ Commission.

“Recent years witnessed large-scale development in Bihar that provided employment to the local labour that earlier used to migrate to Punjab for jobs,” said Jakhar. “This has created a seasonal shortage of farm workers in Punjab.” Renowned economist and Chancellor of the Central University of Punjab, Sardara Singh Johl added that the labour shortage “has resulted in an increase in labour costs and increased dependence on machinery”.

Yet, Punjab does still attract migrant workers. Santosh Kumar, 40, a migrant worker from Darbhanga in Bihar, who shuttles between seasonal farming and non-farming sectors in Ludhiana, has been working in Punjab for the past 10 years.

“While government schemes like MNREGA provide a decent living, our children cannot live an above average life and get a proper education with that alone,” said Santosh. “So I decided to come to Ludhiana and work as farm labour during wheat and paddy season and get employed in a hosiery factory as a packer for rest of the year, earning a good livelihood.”

Gurpreet Singh, 46, a contractor who provides farm labour to landlords in Sangrur district said that traditionally Punjab had sown paddy in May, and that had led to depletion of groundwater resources. “This forced the state government to introduce Punjab Preservation of Sub-Soil Water Act in 2009 and the sowing period as per the law became mid-June,” said Gurpreet.

“There is a lull between the period of wheat harvesting in March and paddy sowing, as a result, workers return to their native places and find other work triggering a labour shortage,” he said.

Most of the workforce moved away from agriculture

No accurate figures of the number of migrant labour in the state are available. Lakhwinder Singh, head of the Economics department, Punjabi University in Patiala said the figures of 2011 census on migratory labour were not out, as a result, no precise data on them could be estimated after 2001 when research done by Lakhwinder put the number of migrant workers in the state at 8,19,254.

“When that study was conducted, there was a general perception that rural residents from other states had stopped coming to Punjab,” said Lakhwinder. “However, that study showed that rural to urban migration was still on.” That study had pointed out that a “large chunk of the migrant workforce (6,95,615) comes to Punjab as casual labourers. More than 90 percent of these workers are able to find work in agriculture only up to 50 days in a year. There are three peak seasons — wheat harvesting, paddy sowing and paddy harvesting — when the migrant workers are most needed and after the peak season they usually go back to their native places.”

A report prepared by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) states that between 2004-05 and 2011-12, a large percentage of the workforce across states moved away from agriculture.

“There are two critical factors that affect the movement of labour away from the agriculture sector,” the report added. “The first is the ‘Pull’ factor where, as an economy matures, there is a natural movement of excess workers from low productivity agriculture to higher productivity manufacturing and services, where wages are relatively higher. The other is a weakening ‘Push’ factor, where social welfare programmes such as MGNREGA, has in effect been boosting rural incomes and incentives.”

Daily wages under MNREGA in Bihar is Rs 168 and in Uttar Pradesh Rs 175. Interestingly for Punjab, the daily wage is Rs 240. Yet, labour is in short supply.

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