Local workforce under MGNREGA has been set up in states of Punjab and Haryana to tackle accute shortage of labour and fill up for the seasonal flow of migrants hit by the lockdown.

An exodus of labour is looming over the ongoing Rabi marketing season and expected to spillover into the Kharif season as the bulk of migrants in Haryana and Punjab, eager to return to native places, await the opening up of the nationwide lockdown.

To tackle acute shortage of labour, government procurement agencies in the cereal bowl states of Haryana and Punjab have employed local workforce under MGNREGA to fill up for the seasonal flow of migrants hit by the lockdown.

“Five of my regular labourers did not report for work this week and most likely reached their villages in Uttar Pradesh by now,” a Punjab-based commission agent engaged in procurement of wheat, said. “Left with less than a third of usual numbers of migrant workers, I am forced to bank on locally hired hands.”

An opportunity for better income every year drives farm hands from different states, mainly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, during wheat procurement and paddy transplantation to Punjab and Haryana. This year, the annual interstate migration was halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Seasonal labour, mainstay of farm hands and mandi operationsare mostly supplied by migrants. Over 26,000 commission agents have been issued passes for wheat procurement in Punjab.

“There is shortage of labour for the ongoing wheat harvesting and marketing but we have engaged local workforce. A bigger concern is paddy sowing season, but we are hopeful that the situation will ease by then,” Vishwajeet Khanna, additional chief secretary development, Punjab, said.

The state will have to rely on MGNREGA workers and local labour in case the situation spills over to the ensuing paddy sowing season. “It would be a challenge as paddy transplantation and sowing is a skillful job and migrants are apt at it,” Khanna said.

This year the wheat procurement has been staggered to maintain social distancing and tackle short supply of labour. “The procurement has been extended to 40-45 days instead of usual 20-22 days to avoid crowds in mandis and we are aiming 

to to 4-4.5 lakh per day during peak days instead of usual 10-10.5 lakh tonnes ,” Khanna said. Number of procurement mandis have been doubled this year, he added.

In Madhya Pradesh, the spread of disease has affected mandi operations in districts of Bhopal, Indore and Ujjain as they fall in red zone. A temporary shortage of farm labour is also being noticed in some pockets in Uttar Pradesh as low availability of combine harvesters has spiked demand for manual labour.

“We had to employ labour engaged in sugarcane mills for wheat season as seasonal workers didn’t come during wheat harvesting. Even they are anxious to return, as they have been stuck here for the last six months,” Jaiveer Chaudhary, a Karnal-based farmer said. He said that his key concern was sowing and transplantation of paddy sapling —‘jirri’ in local parlance — a key cash crop in his district.

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