Nepalis labor shortage amid Covid curbs, strained ties upsets Himachal’s applecart « Khabarhub
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Nepalis labor shortage amid Covid curbs, strained ties upsets Himachal’s applecart

23 August 2020  

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SHIMLA: The Covid-19 pandemic has left apple growers of Himachal Pradesh struggling with challenges of high labor cost due to shortage and strict curbs.

With apple picking underway in the lower hill areas of the state, orchard owners are scouting for skilled Nepalis workers, who form the backbone of the Rs 4,500-crore apple economy.

Apart from travel restrictions due to the pandemic, India’s strained relations with Nepal after the recent border dispute has hit the movement of laborers from the neighboring country.

The apple economy is the main source of income for most in Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur, Mandi and parts of Chamba and Sirmaur districts. The apple season in the lower hills is about to wind up but it will continue in the higher altitude areas till mid-October.

Many Nepalis laborers working in orchards returned home amid the tension between India and Nepal and those wanting to come back to earn a livelihood could not make it due to travel restrictions.

Somnath Jaishi, 42, from Nadda village in Nepal’s Accham district worked in an orchard in Rohru for six months a year but this time he could not make it back in time. “Initially, when I wanted to come, we were stopped by Indian border police and when we made another attempt, we were stopped by Nepalis police at Banbasaha,” he said over phone.

Now that the Nepal government has eased travel restrictions, the stricter Covid-19 guidelines in Himachal Pradesh have made it tougher for both labourers and orchardists.

Earlier, the government allowed apple growers to quarantine laborers coming from outside the state in the orchard for 14 days. Now it has made institutional quarantine mandatory for laborers. They are housed in dingy rooms of nearby government buildings and orchard owners are to provide food and bedding.

“What’s the fun when orchard owners have to make all the arrangements in institutions? Isn’t it better to allow them to be quarantined in orchards?” says Narendra Chauhan, an apple grower from Kotkhai.

Initially, the government had assured orchardists of facilitating migrant laborers but later left it to apple growers. Shimla deputy commissioner Amit Kashyap, however, took the initiative and workers from Lakhimpur Kheri, Azamgarh and Motihari in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were arranged. But these labourers are not skilled in picking and packaging apples.

Gyan Chand Thakur, an orchardist from Kullu, says, “Most of the labor available is local and from Mandi district. This time, there are no Nepalis laborers. We have no choice but to pay up to Rs 1,000 daily.”

Apple growers in Kotgarh region of Shimla district are also forced to spend more on wages. The few Nepalis workers available in the region are in high demand and asking for higher wages than previous years.

Aalok Chauhan of Banot village in Kotgarh says, “This year, a Nepalis’ laborer charges Rs 500 a day, which is Rs 100 higher than the wages paid last year.”

Kotgarh had a lean crop this time so growers with smaller orchards managed harvesting on their own. “We are three in the family. Two of us plucked the apples and took them to the store in the ‘kilta (a cone-shaped basket). We even packaged the crop ourselves,” says Pratap Singh of Kotgarh.

The orchardists say laborers in the area are more interested in construction activities as they get paid better there. “They are paid by the hour by the contractor and earn up to Rs 700 a day so not many are interested in farm work,” says Ajay Thakur of Dadesh village in Kotgarh.

(With inputs from Hindustan Times)

Publish Date : 23 August 2020 07:23 AM

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