Facing acute shortage of labour and transportation following country-wide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, harvesting wheat crop has turned into herculean task for farmers in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, the agranaries of India'.
State procurement agencies too will have to face massive hassles to lift the crop from the mandis with a sudden spike in wheat arrival by mid of April after Baisakhi.
Officially, the procurement begins from April 1 in both state that contribute over 70 per cent of the total foodgrain -- wheat and paddy -- respectively to the national kitty to run public distribution and welfare schemes. Officials say this time it is likely to start by mid of April.
Punjab had harvested a 20-year record bumper wheat crop last season with its production of 129.93 lakh tonnes, of which 128.38 lakh tonnes was procured by state agencies and the remaining by private traders.
Haryana had procured 93.60 lakh tonnes of wheat in the last season.
This season, Punjab aims to reap 135 lakh tonnes of wheat and is expected to arrive in 1,850 mandis and nearly 1,700 procurement centres.
Four-five lakh daily-wage earners, mainly from Bihar and Jharkhand, are employed by the farmers and the aarhtiyas' commission agents each in Punjab and Haryana for harvesting and procurement respectively.
With the lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 evening means they are not allowed to travel both inter-state and intra-state.
The likelihood is most of the farmers will run shortage of manpower in the coming days.
Prominent farmer Yuvraj Dhillon of Punjab's Khanna town, the biggest grain market in Asia, told IANS over phone that he knew there won't be too much labourers for harvesting this time and this is a big challenge for the state.
"Most of the labourers normally start arriving in Punjab by mid of March. This time the coronavirus scare earlier slowed down their arrival from home. Now with the country-wide lockdown, a majority of migrant workers stuck there," he said.
"We have a good crop this time but we are keeping the fingers crossed. If there is a delay in wheat procurement, it will certainly impact the next crop too owing to the delay," a progressive farmer Amrik Singh of Zira in Punjab's Ferozepur district said.
For farmers who have grown potatoes in Punjab's Doaba region, which feeds potato markets across the country, the labour shortage is also spelling harvest troubles for them too.
Potatoes are grown on about one lakh hectares in Punjab with a production of 25 lakh tonnes every year. The growers are demanding exemption from curfew to harvest the crop that has short shelf-life.
Haryana also largely depends on farm labourers from neighbouring states.
The farmers are caught in a vicious time-cycle as they have to complete harvesting of wheat by mid of May and sow the next crop paddy by June 10.
Wheat is less labour intensive compared to the paddy.
Dairy farmer Ajaib Singh in Haryana's Karnal said the shortage of manpower is impacting the dairy farming too.
"Farm workers are not willing to come from to their native places in Bihar. This will certainly slow down not only the harvesting but also the procurement process," a district agriculture officer in Haryana said.
Farm experts say since wheat harvest is mostly mechanised in Punjab and Haryana, labour shortage is a big issue for 'arhtiyas' and government procurement agencies.
The respective state government should take up the issue with the Union government to counter the farm distress.
Sensing losses due to lockdown, many farmers in Punjab's Mansa district have started ploughing their vegetable crops with tractors to make green manure for the next crop.
Punjab Food and Supplies Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu said the government has been asking farmers to hold on their wheat stock with them for some days after harvesting.
"We are asking the Central government to delay the procurement and a decision in this regard is expected soon,a he told the media.
Punjab, whose major crops are wheat and paddy, is already facing the problem of plenty.
Apprehending rotting of substantial wheat this time, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh last week suggested that the Centre should allow the food stocks currently stored in Punjab godowns to be distributed to the poor whose earnings were impacted due to the coronavirus outbreak instead of letting them rot in the storage areas.
Since the stocks belonged to the government of India, it was in their purview to take a decision in this regard, he said, adding that the 20 million tonnes of food grains that Food Corporation of India (FCI) had yet to lift from the godowns could be put to better use by feeding the people not just in Punjab but wherever needed.
Such a move would be a life saver for the people of India in the current crisis, the Chief Minister added.
In Punjab, wheat is harvested in 35 lakh hectares, while rice is under cultivation under 29 lakh hectares with 25 per cent under Basmati crop.
Out of 42 lakh hectares under crop in Punjab, the other crash crops are cotton, potato and sugarcane.
(Vishal Gulati can be reached at email@example.com)