Indian agricultural workers broke, uncertain as rural lockdown eased
MUMBAI: As India eased its tough coronavirus lockdown for farmers, some agricultural workers said they were unaware they could return to the fields after weeks without income during the peak harvest season. India’s 1.3 billion people will continue to live under strict curbs until May 3, but the government said farms and factories could resume activity today in the hinterland, which has been less hard-hit by COVID-19.
“We didn’t know the restrictions were lifted,” farm worker Mukesh Sahani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, saying weeks without earnings had left his family with “just about enough to eat and live”. “We have incurred the biggest loss ever this year. My parents and I managed to get two days of work this month for 400 Indian rupees ($5), as against the 15-20 days of work we get on various farms every year,” he added.
April is normally a month of strong demand for farm workers but the lockdown, which is now in its fourth week, has brought the countryside to a virtual standstill and harvest festivals have been muted this year. It was unclear exactly how many of the country’s millions of agricultural workers were unaware that the controls had been partially lifted, as farming unions sought to spread the word in the countryside.
Seema Kulkarni of the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, a network of civil society groups and women farmers which has been sending out messages to its members this week, said there was “eagerness” among farm workers to get back to their jobs. Nearly 70 percent of India’s population live in rural areas, where more than half of men and nearly 70 percent women are engaged in agricultural work, government data shows.
Due to circumstances a government spokesperson said daily wages under a rural employment scheme had been increased to 202 rupees ($2.65) from about 180 Indian rupees ($2) and nearly 55 billion rupees ($655 million) disbursed among 16 million people. These were among the many steps including allowing agricultural activities and setting up call centres to coordinate transportation of farm produce - undertaken by the government to mitigate hardship in rural India, he said.
K S Dhatwalia, principal director general of the Press Information Bureau of the Indian government, said in an email that both sowing and harvesting activities were on course, with the sowing area coverage better than last year.
Recent videos shared by farmers on social media show fields bursting with crops including cabbages, peppers, tomatoes and grapes waiting to be harvested, or being dumped by farmers unable to sell their produce. “Farm produce traders, who would harvest crops from my land to sell it at the wholesale market, couldn’t make it this year,” said farmer Kannaiyam Subramanium, whose video of his bumper cabbage crop went viral on Twitter. “There are many farmers who haven’t got workers to harvest. Vegetables won’t wait for the lockdown to be over before they perish,” he said.
For some farm workers, however, the easing of the controls brought a little relief. Pawan Laluram, 20, went to visit his employer to pick up wages he was due to be paid: two sacks of wheat. “I couldn’t bring the wheat sacks last month when the lockdown was announced as I had to walk nearly 40 miles (65 km) to reach home,” he said. “There’s no work in the village and there was no food at home. The wheat may last us a few months,” he said. — Reuters
DAREWADI, India: Anil Salunkhe, a farmer, feeds strawberries to his cow during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in this village in Satara district in the western state of Maharashtra on April 1, 2020. — Reuters