COVID-19: Himachal stares at labour crisis ahead of apple harvest

With no labourers arriving at the peak of harvest, Himachal’s apple growers face a tough time looking for alternatives

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 30 June 2020

Horticulturists in Himachal Pradesh face a looming crisis on the eve of the forthcoming apple harvest. There may be a 70 per cent dip in the number of Nepalese workers they hire this year on account of the nationwide lockdown to curb the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the sealing of the Indo-Nepal border.

With no labourers arriving at the peak of the harvest, apple growers face a tough time looking for alternatives.

Nepalese labourers are well-versed with the tasks involved in the harvest season, according to several growers. The productivity in the work — which involves great heights and difficult terrain — of labourers from Bihar and Jharkhand is a third compared to their counterparts from Nepal.

Apple growers said they have depended on Nepalese labourourers for more than six decades for the growth of the Rs 4,000 crore apple economy. Almost 275,000 families in the hill state depend on this economy for cultivation and subsidiary activities.

The production of apples is expected to be around 25 million boxes of 20 kilogrammes each this year.

“We normally see the arrival of Nepalese labour in two batches. The first batch arrives in March and is involved in farm activities like spraying, etc. This normally accounts for up to 30 per cent of the required labour,” said Sanjay Chauhan, an apple grower and leader of the Kisan Sabha.

The remainder reach Himachal Pradesh in July and they carry out several activities, including plucking, packaging and transport on their backs to the nearest roads for further transport to mandis (markets), according to Chauhan.

“The labour starts returning to Nepal by Dussehra and Diwali. It needs to be understood only 20 per cent of village homes have immediate road connectivity. The load has to be carried manually for 80 per cent of the villages,” he added.

Apple growers have attempted to attract labourers from orchardists, according to an apple grower from Kotkhai.

“The wages of labourers that were Rs 400-450 last season climbed to Rs 650,” the apple grower said.

What is being done?

There are several families that give some land to the labourers to stay and cultivate potatoes and vegetables and take their services during the apple season, according to Sanjiv Thakur, a resident of Matyana village near Theog.

“Those who have Nepalese labourers residing on their land round the year are placed comfortably. We are also hoping to see movement of the labour that is available with the harvest from one belt to another,” said Sanjiv Thakur of Matyana village near Theog.

Several growers are now eyeing labourers from Sirmaur district, known to be sturdy and well-versed with the hilly terrain, according to Chauhan.

“The government needs to be proactive and should make immediate interventions. Those interested in coming here to procure apple and transport the crop to the plains need to be facilitated,” he said, citing instances of people denied entry to the state on at least 11 occasions.

He said apple growers felt let down after the state government led by Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur made promises of taking steps to address the issue of scarcity of trained labour, but did little on the ground.

Thakur, in several statements, said he asked officials to hold meetings with contractors who should bring labourers back. He said adequate arrangements must be made to facilitate them to ensure there was no scarcity.

Thakur said the state government could consider sending buses upto Uttarakhand capital Dehradun and other areas, if necessary, to bring Nepalese labourers to the state.

He said the matter should also be taken up with the district administration of Nepal’s bordering districts to bring labour back to Himachal Pradesh.

Thakur, on June 11, asked the officials to ensure proper testing and quarantining of labourers, if necessary.

The Himachal Pradesh Horticulture Produce Marketing and Processing Corporation — a state government undertaking — empanelled 26 firms for the supply of packing material like cartons, separators and trays, said Thakur.

About 12 million cartons were ready with these firms for supply to orchardists, according to Thakur.

The horticulture department tied up marketing arrangements for growers at Delhi’s Azadpur market and Haryana’s Gannaur market, said Thakur.

Controlled atmosphere stores were identified in government and private sectors in Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab with a total capacity of about 117,000 tonnes. Besides this, cold storage facilities of 32,000 tonnes were available for horticulturists, he added.

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