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Why farmers can get no labour

May 29, 2008

Bhavdeep Kang

The co-existence of labour shortage and unemployment has long confounded economists. Currently, it is confounding Indian farmers. Not just in Punjab and Haryana or 'forward' south India, but over large swathes of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarkhand, Rajasthan and Bihar. Contrary to conventional perception, it's not just skill-oriented sectors like IT or business or the construction sector (which demands semi-skilled workers) that are affected by the global labour crunch. Agriculture is hard hit and again, it is not just the big farmers who are affected. Smallholders and middle-level farmers are also concerned.

Some farmers describe shortage of local labour during harvest and sowing as their most serious problem. Others say it ranks just after water as a farming constraint and could well impact agriculture by forcing changes in cropping patterns, catalyzing across the board increases in the price of agricultural commodities and encouraging absentee landlordism.

In Punjab and Haryana, the problem acquired urgency this year when the traditional train-loads of labour from Bihar failed to show up, delaying wheat harvesting and hay-making. Labour is always tight during the rabi harvest, but this year, the shortage was unprecedented. Given Punjab's high rate of urbanisation and seasonal demand for labour, farm wages have attracted workers from Bihar and Jharkhand for decades. Some are attached labourers or permanent employees but most are circular migrants. This year, the latter preferred to stay home or go elsewhere -- despite a 75 per cent increase in wages over last year!

Image: An Indian farmer cuts a crop of wheat in a field in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Despite a 75 percent increase in wages, farmers in Punjab and Haryana are struggling as migrant labour have gone elsewhere
Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Also read: Mr FM, denial won't save Chhattisgarh farmers!
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