As chilli field workers walk back to their homes in Covid-19 lockdown, farmers feel the pinch
Thousands of migrant labourers from Chhattisgarh and Odisha, who had been working in chilli fields in Telangana and parts of Andhra Pradesh, have been returning to their native villages due to extension of Covid-19 lockdown. And many have returned on foot, passing through the difficult terrain in dense forests having presence of Maoists in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
According to official estimates, around 10,000 workers, majority of them from Chhattisgarh, had been working in chilli fields spread over 10,000-12,000 acres along the Godavari river belt in Vajedu and Venkatapuram mandals (revenue blocks) of Mulugu district and Charla and Dummugudem mandals of Bhadradri Kothagudem district (both in Telangana), besides Chintoor, Kunavaram and V R Puram mandals of Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district.
They migrate to these parts during the chilli crop season - in February and March - to earn their livelihood. But this year, as the crop almost reached the harvesting stage, the coronavirus epidemic started and thousands of labourers began hurriedly returning to their native villages in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
“Except 1,000-1,500 labourers from Chhattisgarh and around 500 from Odisha, all of them have left for their native places on foot, notwithstanding the imposition of lockdown and sealing of inter-state borders. Since they know the forest route, they might not have come to the notice of the police authorities,” said Jatvati Venkatesh, an activist belonging to Jana Vikas Samithi (JVS), working for the rights of Chhattisgarh tribals.
The plight of Chhattigarh tribals returning from the agricultural fields of Telangana back to their native hamlets came to light with the death of 12-year-old Jamlo Madkami, a resident of Aded village of Bijapur, on her way back to her village on April 18.
The girl came with her maternal uncle to work as labourer in the chilli fields of Peruru village of Vajedu mandal in Telangana. As the lockdown was extended till May 3, she started back to her village, about 150 km away, but collapsed, reportedly due to dehydration and lack of proper food, about 50 km away from her village.
The Mulug district administration ordered an inquiry into how Madkami, a minor girl, was allowed to work in chilli fields and how she managed to cross the border. “Ever since the lockdown was announced, our district officials have been taking all measures to see that the migrant tribal labourers remained in their respective areas of working and not ventured to go back breaking the lockdown,” Mulug district collector S Krishna Aditya told Hindustan Times.
He said each migrant labourer was provided with 12 kg of rice, besides ₹500 towards subsistence allowance, though some big farmers promised to take care of these migrant labourers. “In Vajedu mandal alone, we distributed rice and money to around 1,726 migrant labourers. Yet, some of them seem to have tried to go back to their native places fearing uncertainty in lockdown,” he said.
The exodus of tribals back to their native places have left the chilli farmers in lurch. “We are not able to get labourers to harvest the crop when we actually need them, as majority of them have walked back to their native places,” Srinu Kandula, a chilli farmer in Nandigama village of Chintoor block said.
Normally, these migrant labourers come in groups of families - each comprising parents and their children. “We pay equal wages to each of them, irrespective of their age - ranging from ₹200 to ₹300 depending on the work they do. If we deny work to minors, the parents, too, drop out from work. So, we are forced to employ even minors,” Kandula said.
Besides cash, the labourers also get some quantity of chillis as wages, which they carry along with them back to their villages, where they sell it to make some money. “This time, the yield in chilli crop is very good and the market price is also very encouraging - ₹12,000 per quintal, as against ₹7,000 last year. But we are not position to harvest the crop due to migration of labourers. If we can’t complete the harvesting in another couple of weeks, we will be at a big loss,” said Kandula.
Back home, these tribal migrant labourers are not finding it easy to return to their villages. “The villagers are informing administration about their return. In most of the places these migrant labourers are camping outside the village,” said a police officer posted in Bastar region, who was not willing to be named.
Dantewada superintendent of police Abhishek Pallav said that about 2,500 people from Telangana and Odisha returned to their villages in the district in last 20 days. “Police are monitoring them through sarpanch, village secretary and police station and putting them under quarantine outside the village after medical examination,” he said.
Bijapur Collector KD Kunjam said about 6,000 labourers returned from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and are quarantined in 40 camps. “The tribal villagers have become vigilant about the Covid-19; they are not allowing their own relatives to enter their villages. We are taking care of each and every labourers and for that relief camps have been set up in schools and ashrams,” said Kunjam.
Chief Medical Officer of Bijapur district Dr BR Pujari said many labourers had returned from crossing jungles and mountains. “Most of these are camping outside their villages with the help of villagers and administration,” said Pujari.
Bastar Collector Ayaj Tamboli informed that 41 relief camps have been set up in Bastar district. “As many as 1,084 people have been kept in quarantine. Recently, 17 laborers of Odisha have been stopped outside the village Nangur Gaon, 20 km away from the headquarters,” he said.
Bastar Commissioner Amrit Khalko said that that the villagers of Bastar division are aware of the coronavirus. “More than a thousand villagers are been closed. The traditional Mati festival of Bastar, Devguri Puja, Ama Tihar, Cock fight are not celebrated and people are following the rules,” said Khalko.