Nepalese migrant labourers working in Himachal Pradesh's apple orchards battle twin crises of strained ties, COVID-19 lockdown

Some of the labourers are returning amid the rumours that Nepal could close its border for those living outside of the country. The rumours are enough to compel them to head home amid reports of strained relations between two nations.

Saurabh Chauhan June 08, 2020 07:37:52 IST
Nepalese migrant labourers working in Himachal Pradesh's apple orchards battle twin crises of strained ties, COVID-19 lockdown

Amid weather vagaries and the menace of stray, or sometimes, wild animals, labour shortage is another factor haunting farmers dependent on Himachal’s over Rs 4,000 crore apple economy. The COVID-19 lockdown and reports of tensions between India and Nepal are the major cause behind the ongoing exodus of Nepalese labourers from Himachal.

With apple growers facing the brunt of the labour crisis, the government had to intervene and assure that it will initiate steps to deal with the issue. With borders sealed and tougher lockdown restrictions imposed, new labourers are now entering Himachal Pradesh, where the fruit harvesting season has commenced and just a month is left for the apple crop harvesting.

The apple economy has long been dependent on the Nepalese migrant labourers. Due to precarious working conditions, none other than the Nepalese labourers could work in the orchards of Himachal. Though machines have made the business easy labourers are still considered the backbone of the apple economy — the main source of income for most in Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur, Mandi and parts of Chamba and Sirmaur districts.

Nepalese migrant labourers working in Himachal Pradeshs apple orchards battle twin crises of strained ties COVID19 lockdown

Due to precarious working conditions, none other than the Nepalese labourers could work in the orchards of Himachal. Image procured by Saurabh Chauhan

According to a rough estimate, hundreds of migrant workers from Nepal could not come to Himachal due to lockdown this time round. Most of them visit Himachal in parts. Many who come during apple season return to Nepal when another lot of workers trickle in. But this time around, no one could come from Nepal between March and April. With the situation easing a little now, Nepalese labourers are heading home fearing the pandemic situation.

Some labourers are returning amid rumours that Nepal could close its border for those living outside the country. The rumours are enough to compel them to head home amid reports of strained relations between two nations, said Anil Chauhan, a grower from Apple bowl Kotgarh in Shimla district.

“We faced great difficulty during the lockdown. Many of them remained without work and had to exhaust their savings to feed their families,” said Dheeraj Bahadur, a native of Salyan district of Nepal, who was on the way home along with 25 other Nepalese labourers in a bus from Himachal’s Kullu.

Another Nepalese labourer Kalpesh, enroute to Rupaidiya in Uttar Pradesh's Bahraich district, said, "I spoke to my brother in Rukum district of Nepal. There is a rumour that government could cancel the citizenship if we do not return soon. or if the tension among nations escalates, borders could be sealed. We were supposed to go home in March-end but could not make it due to lockdown."

“There is a surge in COVID-19 cases in India, especially in Nepal-bordering Uttar Pradesh. Labourers are apprehensive about extension of lockdown as well as border sealing. This is also a reason for their return,” said Dinesh Kumar Mehta, an apple grower from Himachal’s Kullu district.

Nepalese migrant labourers working in Himachal Pradeshs apple orchards battle twin crises of strained ties COVID19 lockdown

A file image. Some of the labourers are returning amid the rumours that Nepal could close its border for those living outside of the country. Image procured by Saurabh Chauhan

Shimla’s Kotkhai’s Kunaal Chauhan, a progressive farmer said, “Labour crisis is staring at us. I am getting calls from regular Nepalese workers. They want to come here but due to lockdown restrictions and rumours they cannot make it.”

Apple harvesting starts from June end and lasts till October in Himachal Pradesh. But Nepalese labourers are required throughout the year. Right from farm management including spraying, digging, to the harvesting and post-harvesting management, Nepalese labourers have become key players.

The area under apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh has increased from 3,025 hectares in 1960-61 to 109,553 hectares in 2014-15, which constitutes more than 50 percent of the total area under fruit cultivation. According to Himachal’s Economic Survey for 2019-20, a total of 6.64 lakh tonnes of apples was marketed against 3.68 lakh tonne in 2018-19.

Himachal Pradesh govt assures remedies

For the first time, Himachal Pradesh government has promised to tackle the labour crisis. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur on Friday held a press conference and said that the government will arrange the travel of Nepalese migrants from Nepal borders to Himachal Pradesh. The state has also written to Union government in this regard, he added. “Many of them had returned to Nepal, but still some of them are here,” he said.

The officials at Nepal border said, “Border is sealed. Only those allowed by the Nepal border are allowed to enter the country. Several others who have been coming from different parts are being quarantined at the border.”

The long-brewing crisis

The labour crisis has been felt in the apple country for the last few years. Daily wages have doubled to a maximum of Rs 400 within a decade.

Nepalese migrant labourers working in Himachal Pradeshs apple orchards battle twin crises of strained ties COVID19 lockdown

According to Himachal’s Economic Survey for 2019-20, a total of 6.64 lakh tonnes of apples was marketed against 3.68 lakh tonne in 2018-19. Image procured by Saurabh Chauhan

Progressive growers in Himachal have been changing the crop patterns as well as preferring varieties which need less manpower to look after. Rootstocks are in high demand, which growers feel require less labour as compared to the traditional seedling plants. Besides this, the farmers have shifted on stone fruit crops such as cherry, plum and apricot.

KC Chauhan, a grower from Shimla’s Kothkhai said, “We need to plant different varieties so that the season timing increases. If this happens, we can manage orchards with less manpower.” Besides this, rootstocks deal with this crisis up to an extent.

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