Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to address the nation yet again at 10 am on Tuesday. With the number of coronavirus infected cases crossing 10,000 in India, there is an expectation that the nationwide lockdown, which was set to end on Tuesday, will be extended.

In fact, even before Modi’s speech, at least seven states have extended the restrictions till April 30. Those watching Modi’s address keenly would be agricultural labourers, whose livelihood has been devastated over the last three weeks. spoke to farmers and farm workers across several states who said work has come to a standstill on the fields. While the government had announced an economic package in March, the relief has focused on the landed farmers. For the landless labourers, there has been no income over the last three weeks, forcing many to adopt drastic measures like reducing their food intake to cope up with the income loss.

“According to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, 51% of India’s rural population is landless,” said Rajendran Narayanan, Assistant Professor, Azim Premji University. “So imagine the impact of the lockdown on them.”

A farmer harvests wheat crops in a field in Punjab during the lockdown. Photo: Reuters

Labourers hit

In the Vattakudi village in Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu, 65-year-old N Subramaniam has not had any work for at least a month now.

A landless labourer, Subramaniam and his family of seven survive on farm work, supplemented with work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The law, passed in 2005, guarantees 100 days of manual labour employment in a year to every rural household that demands it.

The paddy harvest in most of Tamil Nadu is over. This means, work primarily depends on harvesting of crops such as a banana and other fruits, vegetables like tomatoes and spinach, and given the summer season, mangoes. But no farmer has called them in for work in the last three weeks despite the government assuring them that agricultural activities are exempted from the lockdown restrictions.

Subramaniam said post-paddy harvest time is actually a good time for labourers. “Other crops are labour intensive,” he said. That is, while machines are used to harvest paddy across large swathes, the smaller crops like vegetables and fruits require more labour hands. “Usually, we make more money during the April-May season,” he added.

The Tamil Nadu government on March 24 announced that ration card holders would get Rs 1000 as relief for the Covid-19 situation plus free rice, dal and oil for the month of April. Subramaniam said that money was exhausted in matter of days. “We have nothing now. We have cut down on food, eating half of the rice we used to and that too mainly with thovayal [paste made with either vegetables or plant stems].”

In Prakasham district in Andhra Pradesh, a major chilli cultivation belt, farm labourers said harvesting has come to a halt in most parts.

The labourers are a mix of those who hail from other neighbouring districts such as Kurnool and North Indian states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. When the lockdown was announced suddenly on March 24, many labourers who had camped near the chilli fields were trapped with nowhere to go.

Mosin Ahmed, a farm labourer near Ongole, said the contradicting announcements in the first few days of the lockdown led to chaos. When the government eventually said agricultural activities were exempted on March 29, farming had already come to a standstill.

Ahmed said he had heard that Rs 500 has been deposited in Jan Dhan Yojana accounts of women. But his family has not accessed it yet. “We all fear police action when we step out,” he said.

The restrictions on movement apart, the labourer said farmers are worried about selling their crop after harvesting. Small farmers would rather harvest the crop themselves than paying wages, given the situation. “Who would have thought that in a season with such good cultivation, we won’t have work?” Ahmed said.

Cutting down on labour

Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district is part of the drought-prone Bundelkhand region. The young members of most rural families here migrate to Delhi and the surrounding urban areas to work in industrial and construction jobs, while the older members stay and work in small farms.

Hari Ram’s family has a similar division of labour. He cultivates the family’s two acres of land in Gor village in Jatara block, and picks up construction jobs near home. His son and daughter-in-law work in Rohtak, Haryana, as casual construction labour.

When the lockdown began, the young couple decided to head back home. They covered part of the 700-km journey on foot, the rest by hitching rides on trucks. “By the time they got back home, blood was oozing out of their feet,” said Ram.

Ram harvested the family’s wheat crop on his own. He would have normally hired some labour, but this year, he decided to save on costs. “My son had lost his work and income,” he said. “Money is tight.”

Large farmers in the area, he said, used harvester machines since hiring labour during the lockdown was more inconvenient. As a result, said Ram, the farm workers have gone without any income.

“There is no work in the fields. There is no work outside,” he said. “Everyone is sitting at home.”

Ram has heard on television that the government had announced free food rations through the public distribution system and extra rations for children in place of the school mid-day meals. But people in his village were still waiting for the distribution to begin. “We last picked up rations in mid-March,” he said. “Nothing since then.”

State like Andhra Pradesh have also announced that school children will be given dry rations instead of the mid-day meals.

The central government claims to have disbursed Rs 7,835 crore into the Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts of over 15 crore women – with each account holder getting Rs 500. Ram did not know if any money had been deposited in the accounts of the women in his family. “We have not been able to go to the bank,” he said.

PM Kisan transfers

Mithilesh Kumar Dangi, a farm union leader in Hazarbagh in Jharkhand, said while the Centre announced that Rs 2000 will be paid under the PM-Kisan scheme in the first week of April, this would benefit only the landed farmers. Launched in December 2018, the scheme offers monetary supplement to small and medium farmers who cultivate up to 2 acres of land.

“But many farmers are bataidars (sharecroppers). They don’t get anything,” he added. This means the farmers may not have money to pay the labourers.

Rajendran Narayanan, academic and member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakthi Sangathan, said the announcement of Rs 2,000 under PM-Kisan is a dress up. Under the scheme, the farmers are anyway entitled to Rs 6,000 annually. This is usually paid in three installments. “The government has merely advanced the payment of one installment,” he said.

Ideally, Narayanan added that the Centre should pay the entire Rs 6,000 now and augment the scheme for further payments later. “And this should be expanded to include landless labourers and tenant farmers.”

But even the PM-Kisan payments have their flaws. While the scheme document on the PM-Kisan website said the estimated beneficiaries are 13.5 crore farmers, the government has said “8.6 crore farmers will benefit immediately” from the Rs 2000 front loading of the installment in April first week. There is no explanation on when the others would get the money.

Media reports said the Centre was yet to pay the last installment under the scheme for the 2019-20 financial year, which raises serious questions over whether the April payment could really be claimed as advancement of this year’s quota under the scheme.

Mithilesh Kumar Dangi, a farm union leader in Hazarbagh in Jharkhand.

Dangi said police restrictions during the lockdown mean there is very little harvesting happening in the area. While farmers who have land near their houses are harvesting, others have stopped. Adding to the woes of small farmers and labourers is the fact that government announcements aren’t getting implemented properly.

He added that while the state has announced free rice through the public distribution system, there are complaints of the rice getting siphoned off due to corruption. “Those who have small children are affected in a very bad way. They are struggling to feed them, give milk. But the police are acting even against milkmen,” he said.

Ajeet Mehta, a 24-year-old contractual worker at Nawada Fatehpur in Manesar, Haryana said that his parents in Bihar’s Rohtas district were being stopped by police when they step out and cut the wheat harvest from their one-acre field. “They go at 4 am because otherwise the police tells them to sit inside their homes,” Mehta said.

He added that his parents were not able to find labourers to work on the field but continued to go out. “The harvest will spoil otherwise,” he said. “It is ration for one year.”

Faulty policies

V Amirthalingam, Tamil Nadu secretary of the All India Agriculture Labourers’ Union, said the government policy of focussing only on landed farmers was inherently flawed.

While scheme benefiting the small and medium farmers such as PM-Kisan has been prioritised, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme, which primarily supports landless rural families, has been pushed behind in priorities, he alleged.

In March, the Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the average daily wage rate under the scheme would be increased by Rs 20 to Rs 202 per day, which she said would result in an additional income of Rs 2000 per year for a beneficiary. However, across India, many beneficiaries do not get their full quota of 100 days work under the scheme every year. The wages paid differs from state to state marginally depending on consumer price index of agricultural labour.

Apart from the fact that the wage addition figure itself is low, economists such as Jean Dreze have hit out at the claim of wage increase, stating that this was merely an accounting adjustment.

Amirthalingam added that not only has the work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme stopped, there is a huge backlog of payments for work already done since November. “The government as first measure should release the backlog. This in itself will provide huge relief,” he said. While the Union Rural Development Ministry said it was releasing a total of Rs 4.431 crore to states to clear the backlog by April 10, many workers have still not received the payments.

Second, he said paying wages for the period of lockdown would be another efficient way to help rural labourers. This should be done even if actual work cannot happen on the ground, as it was not the unwillingness of the labour but the extraordinary situation that has led to cessation of work. For example, he said a day’s work under the scheme fetches Rs 258 in Tamil Nadu. If paid for the 21-day lockdown period, this would work out to about Rs 5,400, a big amount for those struggling to get work.

With inputs from Shoaib Daniyal and Supriya Sharma.