“This might be the last season for cultivating paddy in my fields if Covid-19 does not go away,” said Abdul Rehman, drinking water which Haleema, his wife, had poured for him in a steel tumbler after a tiring day in the family’s field in Nagbal village of Ganderbal district in Central Kashmir.
He was working in the family’s small field – less than an acre – after 10 years. “I stopped working here myself because migrant labourers [mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh] would do more work in less time, which saves me money,” he said. “But now, if ‘outside’ labourers don’t come,” added 62-year-old Rehman, a former government employee, “I might have to give up paddy farming.”
In Central Kashmir’s paddy fields, migrant labourers are usually paid Rs. 1,000 for harvesting one kanal of paddy (8 kanals equal 1 acre), and 4-5 labourers working as a team manage to harvest 4-5 kanals in a day. Local labourers have been asking for higher rates – Rs. 800 per person as daily wages, and four labourers usually harvest 1 kanal a day (rarely 1.5 or 2). That’s a total of Rs. 3,200 per kanal.
But this year, farmers like Rahman and Rather, who own small pieces of land, are facing losses at two levels. Due to the lockdown, they or their family members have lost months of earnings from daily wage labour – for which the usual rate here is Rs. 600 a day – at brick kilns, sand extraction pitches and construction sites. And during the recent harvesting weeks, they were left with no option but to hire local labourers at rates they could barely afford.
Among those struggling is 38-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Mir, from Karipora village in Budgam district of Central Kashmir. He lost his sand digging job due to the lockdown and was counting on his 12 kanals for a good yield. “I had set my hopes on my land, but untimely rains [in early September] damaged most of my crop,” he told me some weeks ago. “I wish the migrant labourers had been here so that I could have saved some of my paddy with their fast harvesting skills.”
And in Darend village, 55-year-old Abdul Hamid Parra, working on his four kanal field, echoes the hope: “This is the first time that migrant labourers are missing from Kashmir’s paddy fields.” (They were available last year, even if in depleted numbers.) “We have worked in curfews, lockdowns, hartals, but this Covid time is different. I hope we will see the migrant labourers back in our paddy fields in future.”
These hopes might well be realised. Over the last two weeks, labourers from other states have begun trickling into the Valley.
This article was first published by the People’s Archive of Rural India.