India Interior

A fruitful time for migrant labourers

Sarita Brara | Updated on September 07, 2019 Published on September 07, 2019

Gathered and graded Yodha Bahadur Bisht (top) and Ram Bahadur from Chaknol (right) at work. - SARITA BRARA

The apple season in Himachal Pradesh spells good earnings for workers from India and Nepal

It is apple season in Himachal Pradesh — the time of the year when thousands of migrant labourers from Nepal, Bihar, Jharkhand, UP and Uttarakhand travel long distances to reach the apple belt of the State, hoping to earn hefty wages.

From plucking, loading, grading, labelling and packaging apples, these workers fan out, from roadhead villages to the remotest ones in the interior parts of the hill State. They are seasonal migrant labourers who come at the end of June or beginning of July and go back in October.

However, there are also migrant workers who work round the year, maintaining apple orchards for their owners who may be employed in places that are distant from their villages.

Ram Bahadur, who hails from Rukum Rangsi village in Nepal, first came to Kotkhai district as a young man, in 2001. He married a Nepali girl here and now has three children, two daughters and a son. They have agriculture land back home in Nepal where they grew paddy that was just enough for the family’s use. Ram Bahadur now works in Chaknol village.

A man of many talents, Ram Bahadur is not only competent in all the activities related to apple growing, from pruning to harvesting, but can also double up as a mason when required. His family has been given a place to stay and a kitchen garden to grow vegetables. He gets daily wages ranging from ₹600 to ₹700 during the apple season and around ₹400 for cutting grass, and similar odd jobs around the year.

As mason, he earns ₹500 a day. Besides he can grow cash crops like peas and sell them to earn some extra money.

Earlier, his wife also used to work for daily wages but now she has a son to take care of. Ram Bahadur’s eldest daughter Rekha, studying in Class XI, says her father wants to earn enough money to buy land in Nepal where he can earn a living by opening a shop. There is not much scope to generate income in their village, she says. Ram Bahadur wants to go back after his children complete their schooling.

Incentives aplenty

Orchard owner Digvijay Chauhan says he has to employ extra hands in the orchards during the apple season. He pays unskilled workers ₹300-400 and semi-skilled workers ₹600-700 as daily wages. Chauhan has nearly 20 bighas of land where he grows mostly apple but other fruits as well.

Deepak is the third generation of a family that came from Nepal to earn a living in Himachal Pradesh. His maternal grandparents had come to Shimla district and now, as a young man, Deepak, along with parents and younger brother, works in an apple orchard. Deepak, like many others, was born in the State and has studied till senior secondary level.

“One visit to my village in Nepal costs over ₹15,000 per person as we have to go by a 30-35 seater plane from Nepal ganj to our place,” says Deepak. Also, they have to save for they do not now know how long they will be able to work before they ultimately go back to their ancestral village.

The owner of the orchard, Param Dev Sharma, says that in order to retain labour a lot of incentives have to be given. Besides a fixed amount every month, the workers are given a place to live, land to grow own vegetables for their use, and to sell. Deepak and his family grow rajma bean, potato and other vegetables.

During pruning of the apple trees in December-January and the harvest season beginning July, they are paid money over and above a fixed monthly salary. In fact, says Sharma, he has given one of his orchards with hundred trees on a kind of a lease to another Nepali, also named Ram Bahadur, and gets a fixed amount. The rest of the profit can be pocketed by Bahadur and his family.

Balwant has been coming to Thana Village in Jubbal block of Shimla district for the last three years, to Nek Ram Jhobta’s orchard. Back home in Uttarakhand, he has his own agriculture land as well as apple and stone fruit orchard.

But because of early harvesting in his State, he does not mind packing and grading apples for one-and-a half months in this village. “The daily wages are higher and if I can make some extra bucks, why not,” he says.

Preference for Nepalis

For Yodha Bahadur Bisht, who hails from Western Nepal, this is the first time that he has come as a migrant labourer to Himachal Pradesh. Instead of daily wages, he gets ₹80 for loading and carrying a box of apples to the roadhead.

Sometimes he earns more, sometimes less, but the average comes to nearly ₹600. “I have done odd jobs in Delhi and elsewhere earlier, including being a cook. Here, the job is hard but the money is good. I hope to earn good money during the season and will go back by Dussehra.”

He has been shuttling between India and Nepal since 2002, says Bisht.

Sharma and other apple growers prefer Nepalese to the locals because they know these workers cannot lay claim to the land or the orchard. They are also hard-working, trustworthy and can carry huge loads on hilly tracts.

Many orchard owners work in offices and their orchards are handled by the Nepalese. While the Nepalese are good at carrying huge loads and plucking apples, the migrant labourers from Bihar and Jharkhand are good at packaging and grading, says Sharma.

Apple has brought about a sea change in Himachal Pradesh’s economy as well as the earnings and living standard of the growers.

Those who used to work in the orchards themselves now employ labour drawn from Nepal and other States.

This has given migrant labour an opportunity to earn good money in the scenic surroundings of the apple belt of Himachal Pradesh.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on September 07, 2019
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