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Labour crisis in Kodagu’s estates may worsen over lockdown extension

Growers cannot bring migrant workers; post-harvest operations for the next season hit as resident workers cannot handle the large cultivated area

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•Growers who hoped of seeing curbs lifted, cannot bring migrant workers with the lockdown extended till July 5

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The labour shortage in Kodagu’s coffee plantations is expected to aggravate with the continuation of ban on transporting workers from other districts and neighbouring States due to extension of lockdown in the district till July 5.

The labour contractors used to bring workers from districts in North and Hyderabad Karnataka, and parts of Mysuru besides Kerala and Tamil Nadu for readying the estates for the next season before monsoon.

In view of curbs on inter-district and inter-state transport, workers could not be brought to Kodagu, delaying timely operations. The worried growers were hoping that the curbs would be lifted on June 21. However, the lockdown has been extended till July 5 in the hill district based on the positivity rate.

The growers claimed they were running behind schedule by over a month due to labour shortage. Now, with extension of curbs on migrant workers, the post-harvest activities in estates may see further delay.

Bose Mandanna, former vice-chairman, Coffee Board, and a leading planter in Suntikoppa, said the next coffee season is considered gone in case of a delay or the well-timed post-harvest operations before the monsoon were missed because of labour shortage. The scarcity may result in drop in production because of delay in interventions such as application of fertilizers.

With the exit of migrant workers over the pandemic, many estates were working with minimal labour that also affected the harvest. Workers from Tamil Nadu had left Kodagu for the Assembly elections and were yet to return.

It is believed that resident workers cannot manage the outsized cultivated area in the absence of migrant workers, who constituted nearly 50 per cent of the labour force.

“Making use of locally available workers, the activities are being carried out. But, the work has slowed down. The works are time bound and affect the season if we miss out. We should have finished work by June but are now one month behind schedule,” says M.C. Kariappa, Past President, Codagu Planters’ Association.

Another big worry for growers is “kole roga” affecting Arabica plants following delay in spraying of insecticides due to dearth of labour. “This will result in a berry drop that was also noticed last year too.”

Coffee is grown in over 1.05 lakh hectares in Kodagu. The industry has been in distress since the last few years as floods and landslides damaged crops and estates, besides affecting the overall productivity. The woes of planters have not stopped yet.

“When MSMEs can get loans at 4 per cent, why not the coffee growers for whom loans come at 11 or 12 per cent,” argued Mr Cariappa, an executive committee member of Karnataka Planters’ Association (KPA), who lamented the delay in restructuring growers’ past loans.

Various coffee growers’ associations have pledged support to the district administration for making Kodagu COVID-19 free by deciding against bringing migrant workers until June 21.

The support of large plantations and companies operating in the district has been sought by the authorities in the fight against the pandemic.

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