Impact of COVID-19 on Agricultural Workers

 Navpreet
Kaur and Amanpreet Kaur
[1]
The unplanned
countrywide COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in widespread distress to both
principal classes among the rural population namely the peasants and agricultural
workers. Peasants suffered in the first place from crop losses due to unplanned
lockdown induced delay in harvesting of mechanised crops. Apart from this an
additional problem for peasants was the elevated fluctuation in prices (fall in
nominal prices more often than not) of both crops and their by-products. The
unplanned lockdown has impacted the condition of agricultural workers more
adversely due to a sudden fall in the wage employment. These workers neither
have any asset stocks (including land) nor do they have savings to sustain their
livelihood for what has already been a fairly extended unplanned lockdown. This
note discusses the vulnerabilities of agricultural workers in Sri Ganganagar,
Rajasthan during this period of crisis.

Agricultural
land in the district is irrigated through three canals, Gang canal, Indira
Gandhi Nahar (stage I) (Suratgarh and Anupgarh branches) and Bhakhra canal.
Wheat, Barley, Rapeseed and Chick Pea are the principal crops grown in the rabi season in the district. Cotton and
Guar (cluster beans) are the prominent kharif
crops. With access to canal irrigation in the district during the winter, a
relatively larger area is cultivated in rabi
season. The cropping pattern of the rabi
season has largely remained similar for last few years. Wage employment among
the rural work force is determined by the structure of agrarian relations and
the development of agriculture in different regions or villages. In Sri
Ganganagar, the harvesting and threshing of wheat and barley is by and large,
mechanised. Only a small fraction of households from small, marginal and
semi-medium size class of agricultural land holding, harvest wheat manually.
This manual harvesting of wheat is undertaken with family labour and/or hired
workers, in order to reduce the cost of making the straw from wheat stubbles by
the straw reaper. This possibly results in a greater net return to the
peasants. Rapeseed and Chick Peas are two principal crops which are manually
harvested in the district. At the time of the lockdown announcement on March
24, the harvesting of Rapeseed was already underway and wheat harvesting was
about to commence in the second week of April.
Table 1: Area
under cultivation in Rabi season, by crop and year, in Sri Ganganagar, in per
cent

Note: 1) ** Fourth Advance Estimates of
Rabi 2018-19. Data for 2019-20 is not yet available.
2) Number in brackets are per cent.
Source:
Rajasthan Agriculture Statistics at Glance, various years and
agriculture.rajasthan.gov.in
The peasants
and workers persisted with the harvesting of the Rapeseed even after the
imposition of the lockdown. However, with the closing down of all other work
sites, workers from urban centers–small shopkeepers, construction workers,
mandi workers, hawkers and vendors, other casual workers in non-agricultural
sector– also started seeking work in agricultural activities. The movement of
workers from urban to rural areas, significantly increased the supply of labour
in rural areas. This not only brought down the average days of employment for
each agricultural worker but also affected their average wage incomes
negatively.
Wage Employment:
The manual
harvesting of Rapeseed, Chick pea and wheat (which involve only a small
fraction of the total area harvested manually) is undertaken through piece-rate
contracts, in the district. Most members of workers’ households are involved in
the harvesting of the contracted plots of cultivated land. The agricultural
worker households in the district have reported a decline in wage work by
around 35-50 per cent in rabi season
(see table 2). Some factors which played a significant role in bringing down
the agricultural wage work for agricultural workers, are:
a) Initial
panic regarding health concerns and social disorientation due to the COVID19
pandemic and the unplanned lockdown
b) Consequent
increase in supply of labour thereof:
c) the above
mentioned apprehension and uncertainly among the peasants regarding the ongoing
pandemic and the unplanned lockdown strategy adopted by the government, has
possibly resulted in the greater mechanisation during the wheat harvesting
process in the district.
Table 2: Wage
employment in agriculture in Sri Ganganagar district, by worker and year

Note: *The
harvesting of crops on contracted plot of land, is done by most members of
workers’ household.
The
harvesting of chick pea which began in the second week of April, manifested
trends that were similar to Rapeseed. Wage employment during the peak
agricultural season is the primary source of income for agricultural labour
households. Apart from being employed in agriculture, a few household members
from these agricultural worker households also work in MGNREGA and in
construction work. Female workers have been adversely impacted due to the
unplanned lockdown. This has been the case since due to this decline in the
quantum of agricultural work has been a bigger blow to them as they have had limited
access to non-agricultural employment, due to their lower levels of formal education,
lesser mobility and other social constrains that impinge unequally on them.
The
piece-rate based wage contracts in harvesting have varied in limited ways
across villages. The prevalent rates for harvesting have been either Rs.
1120/acre or Rs. 1440/acre. The harvesting of rapeseed began in mid March in a
few villages and nominal wage rates were higher than last year. But in villages
where harvesting of rapeseed began after the announcement of the lockdown by
the government, the nominal wage rate remained similar to 2019, with the fall
in the real wages by approximately 0.09 per cent.
The rise in
rural labour supply has possibly has a greater negative impact on the number of
days of employment than the rural nominal agricultural wages. Two factors that
could have played important roles in keeping the nominal wage rate for
harvesting work similar to the previous year include:
a) the
existing production relations of peasants and agricultural workers, where
workers earn major share of their income by working on others’ land and rich
and middle peasant classes depend on hired workers for cultivation.[2] The
piece-rated contract was fixed in the fourth week of March and the nominal rate
was an outcome of workers-peasant barging, which could not be change for the
period of harvesting.
b) the
uncertainty and apprehensions among peasants due to the unplanned lockdown,
resulting in their hastening of the harvesting process.

Similar
trends were apparent in the harvesting process of chick peas in April where the
nominal wage rates remained similar as last year and real wages fell by
approximately 0.08 per cent.
Past research on wage employment have established, by and large, that
the rise in mechanisation in agriculture, the quantum wage employment in
agriculture falls. However, to some extent the adoption of newer types of
agricultural systems has opened up some employment opportunities in non-farm
sectors through forward and backward linkages. But the current unplanned
lockdown imposed by the government has increased the vulnerability of
agricultural workers. Unemployment has surged in the informal sector and the
limited assistance provided by the central government in terms of rations,
financial handouts have been rather paltry. Further, with the fall in the
quantum of agricultural employment the income of agricultural worker households
has possibly fallen by around 35 to 50 per cent in the peak agricultural
season, which may push these households to the brink of subsistence or
sometimes below it. This in turn will have a negative impact on aggregate
demand though the channel of consumption.
The unplanned lockdown, has led to a sharp decrease in the quantum of wage
work and wage earnings of rural workers. As these households do not have any
other significant source of income to sustain themselves, the state should
expand the MGNREGA work rapidly, by increasing the number of days per
households, by increasing the MGNREGA wage rate, settling MGNREGA wage appears,
apart from providing adequate safety gear etc. to MGNREGA workers to protect
their health. State policies in this respect should emphasise the provision of
a living wage not merely a minimum wage. Struggles of agricultural workers in
concert with other working classes will be a catalyst in any such transition.
Reference:
Ramachandran, V. K. (2011), “ The State of Agrarian Relations in India
Today,” The  Marxist, 
XXVII  1–2,  January–June 
2011, https://www.cpim.org/marxist/201101-agrarian-relations-vkr.pdf.

[1] Navpreet Kaur teaches
at JDMC and Amanpreet Kaur is a research scholar at CESP, JNU. The information
for this note was collected with the help of All India Agricultural Workers
Union (AIAWU) Rajasthan unit from April 23 to 26, 2020. We are thankful to Dr.
C. Saratchand for his valuable comments and help in editing.
[2] Ramachandran (2011).