Cattle, labour and other non-descripts

India's farm labour needs dignity

Published: Monday 28 February 2005

-- india boasts the world's largest livestock population. The world's largest milk producer has no clue about the amount of fodder available for its animals and the state of its rangelands. There are parts of India where fodder costs as much, if not more, as food. And then comes research showing 36 million tonnes of crop residue are simply burnt in the Indo-Gangetic plains (see p21). This has to do with the use of combined harvesters, as against manual harvest. There are farmers in the Malwa region who prefer to hire these machines from Punjab rather than hire agricultural labour from their own village. One reason for such decisions is that farmers need intensive labour at very specific and short periods of the cropping cycle, which itself varies from region to region.

A country seriously short of fodder burns crop residue and prefers to use combined harvesters when there are millions who migrate seasonally to work as farm labour. India needs to look at itself from the eyes of its horribly undernourished livestock and its chronically impoverished agricultural labourers. And then re-consider the use of machinery like combined harvesters. It will be stupid to assume farmers want (either) combined harvesters or agricultural labour. They want their crop to be harvested in time. Farm labourers comprise one of the most exploited sections. They depend on contractors who exploit them. Over 90 per cent of India's labour sector is unorganised, and about two-thirds of it is in the farm sector. Some of them actually work as bonded labour, though governments steadily refuse to acknowledge this. Farm labour has no social security. And its role in the economy--no matter how crucial it is--is seldom recognised.

Time has come to propose an exchange for farm labour India. The district administration and the Panchayati Raj institutions can register the people who need agricultural labour at a particular time of the year, as also the people who need work. Farmers' choice between combined harvesters and manual labour will depend on the costs and requirements. But it is important that the government intervenes on behalf of agricultural labour. Not to dole out sops but to give them timely information about the availability of work. And a little dignity and recognition.

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