By Rajendra Jadhav, Mayank Bhardwaj and Naveen Thukral
NEW DELHI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A severe shortage of labour, triggered by India's 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, will disrupt harvesting of winter crops in the world's second largest producer of staple food grains, such as wheat.
The northern bread basket states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh rely on farm labourers from eastern India, but after the lockdown began on March 24, most of them returned home to their villages.
"We've never seen anything like this," said Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer from Punjab, whose family grows wheat, rice and cotton on more than 45 acres (18 hectares) and would employ about 10 workers if they used mechanical harvesters.
"We've no-one at all for harvests."
Mann is just one of thousands of farmers concerned he will be unable to get mechanical harvesters to fields or even manage to gather by hand crops likely to be ripe in mid-April.
Late harvests mean lower yields, reduced returns, and a smaller window to plant next season's crops, as well as leaving crops vulnerable to rain and hailstorms.
India has stockpiles of wheat, rice and sugar for its own population and has not been exporting wheat, so international grains markets are unlikely to be affected for now by the labour issues.
But trade and industry officials say delays in arrival, berthing and other shipping operations could affect rice exports, while the lack of workers could limit exports of fresh vegetables, such as onions.
Even if farmers manage to bring in the harvest, they could struggle to get produce to market because of a lack of drivers for the trucks that can carry large volumes.
Most farmers sell produce at wholesale markets, which depend on large numbers of labourers to unload produce and weigh and pack grain. The staffing shortage could also delay farmers' payments for produce.
"Who is going to put grains in the bag, bring produce to wholesale markets, and then transport it to various storage facilities?" asked Jadish Lal, a merchant at the Khanna grain market in Punjab.
In sum, the labour shortage is likely to paralyse activity at the wholesale markets, Sudhir Panwar, head of the farmers' group Kisan Jagriti Manch said, adding vegetable and horticulture growers are likely to struggle to sell produce, as well as the wheat and rapeseed farmers.
India has forecast wheat output at a record 106.21 million tonnes this year, and farmers are likely to produce 7.8 million tonnes of rapeseed.
Some farmers harvested early sown wheat and rapeseed varieties in March, but most growers will collect ripening crops by mid-April.
India has so far seen 1,251 infections and 32 deaths from the coronavirus outbreak, which has caused more than 850,000 cases worldwide, with more than 42,000 deaths.
Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.
(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav, Mayank Bhardwaj and Naveen Thukral; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Barbara Lewis)