Nepali labourers are not only the backbone of the state's apple economy but also part of the highly grounded manpower in the orchards, setting an example for other states struggling with the migrant labour question, reports Ashwani Sharma.
Disturbing images of migrant workers, in their millions, walking miles almost barefoot to return to their villages after being pushed out of jobs and workplaces, tell horrifying stories of human misery amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus.
The nationwide lockdown has already sent the stranded migrant workers -- men, women and children – into a state of chaos and despair on national highways, their progress marred by road accidents and train tragedies.
The images are unlikely to fade away soon even if things progress to a gradual exit from the lockdown in the post-COVID 19 scenario.
But, at least in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, the labour migration has not impacted life as seriously as it has in states like UP, Delhi, Bihar, MP, Jharkhand or West Bengal.
The state government’s estimates reveal that some 85,000 migrant labourers want to return home as do an equal number of Kashmiri migrants, of who around 50,000-60,000 have already returned to the Valley with the administration’s assistance.
“We are in touch with their native states and also Indian Railways to facilitate their phased mobility. So far, the district administrations and employers and industrialists at Baddi-Barotiwala, Nalagarh and Kala Amb included, have been able to prevent distress migration unlike other state governments,” claims Principal Secretary (Disaster Management ) Onkar Sharma, who is the nodal authority handling inter-state movement of those stranded at different places.
However, the real story that makes Himachal Pradesh a perfect example of labour relations exists in the state’s apple belt that has been around for decades, so much so today it has evolved into one of mutual trust and inter-dependence.
In the centre of this ‘fiduciary relationship’, as many call it, are Nepali labourers who are not only the backbone of the apple economy but also part of the highly grounded manpower in the orchards.
Almost every orchardist, big or small, has an inhouse ‘Gurkha’ family in the backyard handling most farm operations, both off-season and peak season activities. Some orchards have more than one family residing in the orchards, and earning their subsistence locally.
“I have nine Nepalis (Gurkhas) with me. The main person, Dhan Bahadur, 56, has been with us for years that I don’t even remember since when. He handles all my orchard activities from pruning, sprays to harvesting operations. Besides his daily wages and dues, which I pay him in advance, I also take care of all his basic needs like housing, rations, medical care and education of children,” says Joginder Chauhan, joint commissioner (legal), Municipal Corporation of Shimla.
So strong are the ties between them that Chauhan helped Dhan Bahadur’s son Kamal Magar not only complete his college education at Kotkhai but also his vocational course in food craft. After his internship and advance training at Pune, Magar is now employed at Radisson, Shimla. Chauhan has even gifted his motorcycle to Magar.
Feeling proud of his son’s rise, Dhan Bahadur gives full credit to Chauhan.
“Babuji (Chauhan) has always treated us as his extended family, helped each one of us, and took care of all our needs. I never felt myself as a labourer in his orchard. He always reposed an utmost trust in me,” Bahadur says.
This is not just one story in the apple bowl. Many believe that Nepali labourers living with orchardists have indeed gained full expertise in farm operations. Their knowledge about apple varieties and timing, use of different pesticides, fungicides, fertilisers and manure can beat some of the apple orchardists who live in Shimla.
It’s only during the apple season that this inhouse labour force is joined by additional manpower from Nepal, for which also the former act as contacts and contractors.
“During the harvest reason there is a huge labour demand for plucking, grading, packaging, loading and unloading of the boxes. This migratory Nepali labour arrives in May-June and stays up to October-November. They are very sturdy and carry loads of apple boxes up and down the narrow tracks. Naturally, they have a major demand in the apple belt,” says Chander Bimta, an orchardist at village Badaiun (Kotkhai).
The apple economy in Himachal Pradesh is worth Rs 3,500 crore -- which is 49 percent of the total fruit economy of the state. Areas like Jubbal-Kotkhai, Rohru, Chopal, Chirgaon, Narkanda, Thanedar, Kotgarh, Rampur and Kumarsen are prime apple growing belts of Shimla. Kullu, Mandi, Sirmaur and Kinnaur are also major apple producers. For the last some years even Lahaul-Spiti has started producing apples.
There is high labour demand during the apple season, which is met mainly from Nepal. Of late, labourers from the state’s districts like Sirmaur, Mandi (Karsog), Bilaspur and from other states like Bihar, Uttarakhand and UP have also been working in the orchards during the peak apple reason, or harvesting of other fruits like cherry, almonds, plum and peaches.
Rohit Thakur, former Jubbal-Kotkhai MLA who is a leading orchardist, says, “There is no match for Nepali labour in handling the apple harvesting season. Now the roads have reached every orchard gate but earlier these Gurkha labourers used to carry apple boxes on their backs five to six km to the road heads, climbing up and down the mountains for loading trucks.”
About the inhouse Nepalis, he terms them as domesticated labour who have been with orchards for years. Their children are enrolled in the local government schools and go to colleges for higher studies. They have ration cards and live in quiet peace with families to look after the orchards.
Tikender Panwar, a former deputy mayor and CPM leader claims, “Orchardist patronise the fiduciary relationship with Nepali labourers because their surplus wealth is basically a result of hard work these labourers put in during the whole year. No doubt they (labourers) are looked after very well. Thus, this relationship is surviving well unlike industrial or construction labour, which got pushed out when the lockdown started .There is no such case noted in the case of Nepali labourers.”
Fearing that the lockdown will result in a shortage of labour in the orchards, the apple orchardists have approached the government asking it to make arrangements for bringing Nepali labourers ahead of the upcoming apple season. There is a need to allow inter-state movement of buses for bringing in the labour before harvest time, says Rohit Thakur.