May 16, 2020


Indian farmers face labour shortage on record wheat harvest



Labour shortage across rural India brought about by the country-wide lockdown to stem the spread of COVID-19 has affected the harvesting and movement of the country's largest-ever wheat crop, reported Reuters.


Late last month, an Indian farmer had to beg and borrow farmhands from nearby villages to gather his part of the harvest in Haryana state near New Delhi.


Now he has a bigger problem: how to sell his crops when the three wholesale grain markets serving growers in his hometown of Gharaunda, near the heart of what is known as India's breadbasket, are operating with a skeleton staff.


The largest crop gathered globally during the pandemic, which is worth more than US$26 billion, according to traders, may serve as a test case for other harvests coming up around the world, including Brazil's main sugarcane and coffee harvests and Southeast Asia's second rice harvests. India is the world's second-largest producer and consumer of wheat behind China.


For Sukrampal, the matter is urgent. He risks spoiling the whole lot if he does not move his produce within the next few days, before the next round of wet weather, as he struggles to keep the moisture content in the wheat below 13% to 14%. Above that, grain is less attractive to buyers and will fetch a lower price. If it gets too wet, it will be worthless.


The lockdown has severely hit India's more than 7,000 wholesale food markets, which are the only channel for getting food supplies to India's 1.3 billion inhabitants.


"Nearly 90% of labourers aren't around. Last season, there were about 5,000 labourers, and this season there are only 500," said Radhe Shyam, a commission agent at the Gharaunda Grains Market. "We haven't seen anything like this before."


India's wheat farmers sell their grain exclusively by law at these wholesale markets to commission agents, which sell it on to state buyers and private traders. The commission agents usually employ armies of labourers to unload, clean, weigh, pack and re-load millions of wheat sacks onto tractor trolleys that then ferry it to government and private warehouses.


This year, those bustling bourses have emptied, severing the food supply chain in the world's second-most populous country and slashing earnings for millions of migrant labourers who have had to sit out one of the most lucrative periods on the crop calendar when they normally would make up to half their annual income.


Restrictions on movement have also delayed purchases by the Food Corporation of India (FCI)—India's state grain stockpiler and top buyer—and kept private traders away altogether, causing a purchasing bottleneck.


Nearly 85% of India's farmers own less than five acres of land, so even relatively small crop losses, or any delay in payments, can affect their livelihoods.


The FCI buys wheat from farmers at a guaranteed price to give them an assured return and meet any shortfall due to unfavourable weather conditions.


If the FCI ends up buying more than 37 to 40 million tonnes of wheat this year, its granaries will overflow by June, said Amit Takkar, chief of brokerage Conifer Commodities.


The government will struggle to export much of that, as the fixed domestic prices have pushed Indian wheat prices about US$35 a tonne above the world market, according to industry experts.

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