An estimated 150,000 migrants have returned to their home states from Karnataka alone, creating an acute labour shortage during the harvest season. With locally available labourers demanding at least twice the prevailing wages, the farm economy is in a fix.
“Some of them (migrants) are farmers themselves and go back to their lands. But over 70% are landless labourers who migrate to Karnataka, Kerala and Goa to work in the plantations," said Abdul Rahim, a labour contractor from Kasargod in Kerala.
“The fear of being quarantined or stung by corona (sic) thousands of miles away from their loved ones is causing the exodus," he said.
With the Uttar Pradesh government recently deciding to bring back all the state’s residents who are stuck across the country, the urgency in southern states to find a solution to the labour market flux has only increased.
Karnataka and Kerala have a little more than 20,000 workers from Uttar Pradesh.
Karnataka’s labour department confirmed that at this time of the year, such large reverse migrations were unheard of. Even the short-term migrants usually go back only after the harvest of areca nut, coffee, oranges, mango and paddy.
Leaders of labour groups that represent workers from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha have already stopped their members from returning to work from mid-March.
Only a few are willing to go back to work although the agricultural economy has opened up.
“I and my family comprising my wife, sister and teenage son work in an areca plantation and collectively earn about ₹2,500 per day for 20 days in a month. If we work for as many days closer to home, we may not get more than ₹1,000 per day. This wage disparity brings us to work in Sullia in Karnataka," said Devesh from Jharkhand, who has decided to stay back at the farm in Sullia.
Many areca planters have now started providing food and shelter to migrant families, hoping that they would stay back.
According to official estimates, about a million migrant farm labourers work in Kerala, Karnataka and Goa. During the harvest season, the demand for working hands goes up to 1.2 million.
The coffee belt is particularly hard hit as it was just gaining orders from the international market for its value-added products. Kodagu and Chikkamagaluru and parts of Hassan district in Karnataka are the main coffee-growing areas in India.
“The coffee plantations in Karnataka, which grow 70% of coffee in the country, need over 650,000 labourers throughout the year," said an official in the Coffee Board who did not wish to be named.
“Though the harvest is between November and March, the crop depends on year-long maintenance of coffee estates. The harvest operations begin in March-April after the blossom showers arrive. The operations include ‘tree lapping’ which balances the light and shade on the estates. If this is not done, the coffee yield may not reach the expected levels. In the present conditions of labour exodus, things are bleak," the official added.
The Karnataka Growers’ Federation is also keeping its fingers crossed.
“Covid-19 has devastated cash crops like coffee and pepper big time. The projection for 2021-22 is just 40% of the coffee cultivated in Karnataka will manage to reach the market. I will be looking at a crop loss of 50% at just 40% labour availability," said U.M. Thirthamallesh, president of the federation.
“The coffee industry used to generate ₹60,000 crore annually as foreign exchange to the country. But it will not be the same this year," he said.
Out of the 650,000 labourers who work at coffee plantations, 60 percent have already moved back to their place of origin.
“The total loss in terms of crop is to the tune of ₹3,500 crore, which is directly borne by the planters," said Thirthamallesh.
M. Raghuram is a freelance journalist based out of Bengaluru.