Madhya Pradesh: Migrant labourers in Vidisha claim they are being shortchanged by the farmers who employ them
As the harvesting season approaches, farmers employ migrant labourers to work on their lands. However, in recent years, there has been friction between labourers and farmers in Madhya Pradesh over daily wages and things came to a head recently at Vidisha, where the labourers staged a protest.
Satish Malviya 28 March 2022 9:34 AM GMT
Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh
The rabi crops of wheat, soya, masur and mustard are ready for harvest in Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh where thousands of migrant farm labourers are hired by land owners for the crop reaping activities. A large number of these daily wage labourers come from hundreds of kilometres away and camp near the fields for months to harvest the crops.
Pushpa Bai Adivasi, from Tyonda Rasul village, in Vidisha is one of them. "We have no home. We wander around from field to field living in makeshift huts and working as farm labourers," she told Gaon Connection. "My husband died, my son has broken his leg and I have no money for his treatment. We are a family of twelve and all of us are daily wage labourers," the farm labourer listed her litany of woes. Pushpa Bai had travelled to work at Dhutoriya in Vidisha, nearly 100 kms away from her village.
The labourers who come from far and wide are dependent on the wages they earn in the farms of others. "I have been coming here [Vidisha district] to work in the agricultural lands for the past fifteen years," Dhruv Loni, a farm labourer told Gaon Connection. Loni's home is 363 kilometres away from Vidisha in a small village, Kaidham in Umaria district.
"I have an acre of land in my village, but that is not enough to live on. And, there is no scope for any other work there," Loni said. That is why he travels all the way to Vidisha during the rabi and kharif seasons to find work. "I stay away from home for more than eight months in a year," the farm labourer said. "We are constantly worrying if the landowners will pay our entire dues," he added.
This year there is tension brewing between the landowning farmers and the migrant farm labourers in Vidisha district. Ten days back, on March 15, migrant labourers and their families, 68 of them, all hailing from Umaria district in Madhya Pradesh, staged a protest outside the district office at Vidisha. They complained that they were not being paid their complete wages.
In a letter they presented to Umashankar Bhargav, the district magistrate, the farm labourers claimed that they were employed by farmer Manoj Raghuvanshi to harvest his chana (gram) and masur (red lentils) crops at Vidwasan village in Ganj Basoda tehsil in Vidisha district. They laboured on his land for 17 days for which a daily wage of Rs 300 had to be paid to each worker. But, protesting migrant labourers said that they hadn't received their dues.
The labourers wrote that the farmer had paid them an advance of Rs 43,000, that was used for their transportation and their boarding and lodging expenses. However, the farmer was now refusing to pay them the remaining dues. According to the protesting farmers, the agreement was that each farmer would be paid Rs 300 a day. For 17 days that amounts to Rs 3,46, 800. The farm labourers also alleged that the farmer had threatened them with physical harm.
However, farmer Manoj Raghuvanshi denied these allegations. "We have used farm labourers for generations, and it has never happened that we have not paid them their dues," he told Gaon Connection. They are not agreeing to the agreed upon wages nor the prevailing payment amount, he said. He also claimed that nearly 12 quintals of produce was given to the farm labourers, but the latter were not acknowledging that.
Sola and theka system of payment
According to the 2011 census, there are more than 140 million labourers who work on the agricultural lands in the country. Much of the labour force is migrant. The labourers travel constantly across states and districts to find work.
Most of the migrant labourers slip through the cracks and are not accounted for in any data. They live uncertain lives and often fall prey to accidents, snake bites, lightning strikes, etc. And, because they are mostly unlettered, many of them find no place in the e-shram portal where the unorganised workers can register themselves.
In Vidisha region of Madhya Pradesh, two kinds of payment practices are prevalent. One is called sola and the other is the theka system. In the sola mode of payment, a portion of the harvested crop is given to the labourer as payment.
In the theka mode of payment, the labourers are paid between Rs 1,100 and Rs 2,000 per bigha (approximately 3.9 bigha make 1 hectare) of land they harvest. This rate is mutually decided between the farmers and the labourers. It usually amounts to a daily wage of Rs 200 to Rs 300.
However, farm labourers allege that they are not being paid the promised daily wage of Rs 300.
Phool Bai and her family live in a makeshift hut near the Vidisha-Sagar highway. They are at a farm in the area to harvest the chana crop. She is originally from Aamkheda village not too far away from here. "The farmer pays us Rs 200 a day. But the migrant labourers from Katni and Rewa are paid upto Rs 300 a day," she told Gaon Connection.
Growing tension between farmers and farm labourers
Lakhan Singh Meena, a local farmer leader, admitted to Gaon Connection that "there has been ongoing tension between farmers and the labourers over wages." According to him farmers were increasingly preferring to use mechanised harvesters instead of employing labour. "However, no farmer can deny the farm labourers their rights and we will not allow that to happen," Meena said.
Some local farmers in Vidisha have decided they will not employ daily wage labourers from other districts anymore. They said the conflicts were increasing in the past few years and it was very inconvenient. They preferred to spend a little more money and buy harvesters.
However, Meena said that the district magistrate and the district labour department have resolved the matter. The labourers will be paid the entire amount at Rs 233 a day, and the farmers (who were demanding Rs 300) have agreed.
Talking about the protest, Ram Kumar Srivastav, the labour inspector, Vidisha, told Gaon Connection, "The labour department was informed of the protest by the farm labourers on March 15. The labourers complained that their dues were not paid by the farmers as promised."
According to the labour inspector, the labour department along with the district magistrate moderated between the farmers and the labourers and solved the dispute in a peaceful way, he said. "An amount of Rs 1, 62, 972 was paid to the labourers. Sixty eight farmers got the amount at the government fixed rate of Rs 233 a day," Srivastav said. The labourers on the other hand had demanded a total of Rs 3, 46, 800.
The labourers seemed resigned rather than happy with the settlement. "We at least got this much,"Dhruv Loni, a farm labourer and one of the protesters, said in subdued tones. "The collector directed the authorities to ensure such disputes did not occur in the future," Loni told Gaon Connection. But, the labourer also said that there was some pressure from the authorities on the protestors to compromise and settle the dispute. "It is not possible for me to travel hundreds of kilometres to run around courts and kacheris," he told Gaon Connection. Loni is from Umariya district, 363 kms away from Vidisha.
Farmer Ishuraj Dangi of Dhaturiya village said switching to harvesters was not that simple. "All crops cannot be harvested with the harvester. Pulses and oilseeds had to be harvested by the human hand," he told Gaon Connection.
According to him, the labourers charged Rs 2,000 per bigha of chana and masur dal they harvested. While the wheat could be harvested with harvesters, the farmer had to spend Rs 1,400 on diesel to harvest two to three bighas of land. Over and above that there was the expense of another Rs 1,200 on removing the residual crop, Dangi explained to Gaon Connection. So, doing away with manual labour altogether was not a solution.
In Madhya Pradesh, across districts, farm labourers are counted as unskilled labour. The government has stipulated that they are to be paid Rs 233 a day as wages. Even the MNREGA wages while compared to the neighbouring states is lower in Madhya Pradesh at Rs 190 a day.