Farm labour: if truth be told

Close to 60% of the population in India is believed to be engaged in the agriculture sector as farm cultivators and field-relevant labourers. While an average rural labourer is stressed about finding an opportunity for work on a given day, the cultivator is stressed about ensuring he can actually afford to hire labourers.

It is a well-known fact that an average farmer is perpetually under the mercy of, firstly, the monsoon or water from the ever-drying borewell and, secondly, the market forces at the time of sales, having to pray for returns on his investment. The market step is reached only if he succeeds in actually getting a reasonable harvest after 3–6 months of intense work in the fields. In recent years, however, farmers are also at the pitiless mercy of the labourers, the third source of stress.

Benefitting from schemes supplying free food grains as well as other commodities at highly subsidized rates plus guaranteed wages coming from other state and federal schemes, village labourers need not work for farmers – that, too, carrying out physically intensive field duties.

Farmers are in a real predicament when they need farm labour. In case a farmer does succeed in finding one or two men and women to work, the demands of the labourers are generally way beyond the reach of the farmers and they have no control. A typical farmer’s work begins one evening when he goes visiting literally house to house requesting for men and women to please come and work in his field the next day. If at all agreed, the starting time is well after 9 am in the morning and the days ends by about 5 pm.

Once at work, there are hassles such as frequent breaks, demanding fodder for the labourer’s cattle, borrowing of farmer’s vehicles for a ride to the town and back, as well as criticisms of the lunch and beverages being provided. Any questions or resistance from the farmer, there is no chance of the labourers returning the next day. The wages are anywhere between Rs 400-500 per day for male labourers and Rs 200–300 per day for women. Some men demand an extra amount at the end of the day to indulge in other habits. Farmers cannot refuse or even afford to criticize them as the fellow may not turn up the next day even though he may have been paid an advance amount to do so. 

Farmers’ own families have shrunk in size and thus they are unable to obtain physical help from sons, daughters, nephews and nieces. In case a farmer puts young children to work, then he is violating the laws set against child labour. Many farmers have actively advocated their grown-up children to migrate to towns and cities, where there are more reliable opportunities. Those sons and daughters, having become aware of the difficulties in agriculture, have left home looking for greener pastures (ironic, indeed) in the country’s already crowded cities. 

In contrast, the non-land owners seem to be under no stress as they prefer to live by the day in an emancipated manner, without any pressures of the land, seeds, water, fertilizers, crop-diseases or feeble market forces. They get their essentials from the benevolent schemes offered by the government; secure pocket money working a day or two per week as per their desire, which is then used for other requirements. They have got mobile phones and even vehicles helping them wile away their time in a non-productive manner.

Taking advantage

It is a common sight in many villages of adults sitting around a tree or on benches smoking, playing board games and chatting. They are familiar with the practice that the government and representatives of local groups come to their rescue and thus take advantage of the situation at the expense of agriculture and the custodians of the nation’s food security -- the farmers.

The real worry is that many of the farmers and land owners are giving up their own field agriculture, becoming labourers for others or migrating to cities. Before it is too late, the question to raise is: Will there be precise mechanised technologies involving robotics, drones and other equipment that are affordable and can these actually replace or even perform better than the farm labourers in all instances? The absence of these technologies will dent the grand plans of India’s food security, especially as the country adds millions of people and animals each year to the already excessive population.

Immersed in this adversity, can farmers actually double their incomes by 2022? Can a scheme be developed offering low to middle level farmers all agricultural input materials, including labour charges, to meet 75-90% of the total farming costs? What will be the stance taken by various political parties in the build-up for the elections?

(The writer is a biotechnologist and currently Principal
Consultant, KITS, Department of IT, BT and S&T, Government of Karnataka)  

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