Karnal/Ambala/Ludhiana: Last year around this time, the government was nonplussed. The wheat harvest was good but there was no grain to buy to boost the country’s reserves, part of which are sold to the poor at subsidized prices.
This year, facing inflationary pressures, the government has cause for cheer because it has been able to buy 18 million tonnes, or mt, of wheat by Friday. Of this, more than 80%, or 14.4mt, was bought in Punjab and Haryana, the largest wheat producing states. Buying the grain may have been easy, but ensuring that it reaches the warehouses of Food Corporation of India, or FCI, is another thing altogether, as for the first time agents grapple with an acute shortage of migrant labour from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
Not enough labour has meant a huge pile-up in various grain markets in Haryana and Punjab. They depend on migrant labourers, 20% cheaper than local labour. Conversations with migrant labourers link this shortage with better opportunities in their home states . They point to two main reasons: increased construction activity as the economy grows, and more openings for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that promises at least 100 days of employment for one member of a poor family in rural India.
However, some, such as Ahmad Muneer, a resident of Godda district in Jharkhand, still found it worthwhile to turn up at Ambala. The differences in wages was still significant enough for him to leave home for the whole of April and a good part of May. On the whole, however, two big grain markets—Ambala in Haryana and Khanna in Punjab—are flooded with wheat but very few labourers to load them on trucks and unload them at FCI godowns. Cargo carriages of trains that it has booked are also facing similar problems. Things have come to such a pass that middlemen are paying truckers extra to arrange for loading the grain.
(Photo: Madhu Kapparath)
1. Piles of wheat sacks at the grain market in Ambala, Haryana, waiting to be loaded on to trucks and despatched to FCI godowns.