Thousands of dabbawalas who deliver home meals to working Mumbaikars have returned to their villages in search of work as the lockdown has crippled a century-old food supply chain. A majority of the dabbawalas are from Pune district and they now work in the fields. Agriculture has become refuge employer for thousands of the casually employed urban workers in cities.
“About 95 per cent dabbawalas who work in Mumbai are from Pune district and majority of them are back in their villages and have resorted to farming. I am sure that most of them would not return to Mumbai if they earn livelihood in the village. Covid-19 has shattered them from within,” says Subhash Talekar, a dabbawala himself and president of the dabbawala association. Talekar is back in Gadad village with his children. “Why would people migrate to Mumbai to live in slums if they get work in village?” he asks.
Shetkari Sanghatana President Anil Ghanwat says the number of people in agriculture has gone up this kharif season with reverse migration. “Those who have land are cultivating and those who are landless are working as farm labourers. Agriculture is the only employment provider in villages and the government must take steps to pump in money to develop agriculture infrastructure and promote food processing industries. This is the time to ensure that villagers stay back and earn a livelihood,” he said.
“Agriculture relies heavily on casual labour and self-employment. Although not affected directly by the containment measures, the sector could become the refuge employer during the economic slowdown. In some parts of the country, a large number of casually employed urban workers, particularly in construction, have returned to their villages. This will reduce remittances while adding to the burden on rural areas in terms of both employment and food security,” the International Labour Organisation said in its document on the Covid-19 crisis’ impact on employment.
As per Census 2011, there are 263.1 million agricultural workers in the country, comprising 118.8 million cultivators and 144.3 million agricultural labourers.
“Farming is not profitable and more people depending on agriculture will only worsen the situation. We need support to start dairies, poultries and processing units,” says Sharad Ingale, a farmer from Satara district. He said many agricultural families in Satara depend on the money which comes from villagers who work in Mumbai as farming does not fetch enough to survive.
Sampatrao Pawar. who has worked in the rural development sector for over four decades, insists that the government has to take immediate steps to make agriculture sustainable. “More people joining agriculture is not going to increase the output. The government has to allocate more money to the rural sector and create job opportunities,” he said.