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Beyond Farmers' Protest, the Reality of 'Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta' in Punjab

As Punjab gears up to vote on 20 February, what are the issues faced by the state’s landless Dalit labourers?

Updated
Beyond Farmers' Protest, the Reality of 'Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta' in Punjab
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72-year-old Karnail Singh died at Delhi's Tikri Border on 30 April 2021.

A landless Dalit labourer belonging to the Mazhabi Sikh caste, Singh hailed from Longowal village in Punjab's Sangrur district. He fell sick and died 6 months after joining the protests against the now repealed farm laws passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020.

"I discouraged him for going to the morcha,' says his son Sukhwinder, 36. "We are daily wagers and not rich landowners or farmers. The repeal of the three laws does nothing to improve our working conditions. We lost our father in a fight which wasn't ours," he adds. "On top of this, we've not even received the compensation promised by the Punjab government."

Sukhwinder's mother and Karnail Singh's wife Jasmeer Kaur, however, disagrees with her son. "We work on their farms. If they (farmers) lose control over their land, we will also lose our livelihood. If these laws were not repealed, we would've lost whatever little we now have," she says.

"We don't have any land in our name and now we have two hands less at work," Sukhwinder replies.

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This exchange between Sukhwinder Singh and his mother Jasmeer Kaur somewhat sums up the farmer-labourer 'situationship' in Punjab.

Sukhwinder Singh with his mother Jasmeer Kaur and children.

(Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

According to a recent study by Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), 7,303 labourers died by suicide in the state between 2000 and 2018. It further pointed out that heavy-debt burden was the cause behind 79% of these cases.

Hence, even as slogans like 'kisan-mazdoor ekta zindabad' echoed at the protest sites in Delhi, labourers back home (mostly Dalits) say that the dynamics on ground do not entirely support this narrative of unity and collective prosperity.

The Struggle For Land

68-year-old Gurdev Singh from Barnala is a member of the Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) — a left-leaning organisation which fights for land ownership rights of Dalits in Punjab.

"We often face harassment when we demand the panchayati land reserved for scheduled castes in the state. They don't want us to own even a small piece of land and live a life of dignity," he says.

Gurdev is referring to the 33% of agricultural village common land reserved for the scheduled castes in Punjab as per the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961.

"At the auctions for the panchayati land, they (upper-caste land owning farmers) prop up dummy candidates from our community. These people are promised alcohol, money, or drugs in return for them to bid for the land and transfer it to the upper-caste farmers once they win the auction," Gurdev adds.

Several other labourers or khet mazdoors as they are colloquially called, told The Quint that the purpose of the reserved panchayati land is not so much to assist them financially but to help prevent the friction that arises between the two communities when the labourers have to go and work on farms owned by upper-caste landowners.

"About 550 bighas of panchayati land in our village is shared among 350 Dalit families. Which means each family gets close to 1.5 bighas if we till the land separately," says 32-year-old Lakhwinder Kaur from Jhaloor village in Sangrur.

"We use that land collectively to graze our cattle and for other purposes. Previously when we had to go to the farms owned by the Chaudharies, they would regularly insult us. It became impossible for women to work on their farms."
Lakhwinder Kaur, Khet Mazdoor

In 2016, a violent clash broke out in Lakhwinder's village between the landless labourers and upper-caste farmers over the ownership of the panchayati land. Several people were injured and a 72-year-old woman was killed. "They (upper-caste Jat Sikhs) entered my home and beat me up. I will never forget that day and the insult I faced," she says.

Lakhwinder Kaur and other women working on village common land.

(Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

Unemployment and Debt

While many like Jasmeer Kaur hinted that farm-labourers are dependent on the farmers and flourishing farm economy will help the labourers to prosper, members and leaders of organisations like the Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee and Kisan Khet Mazdoor Union say that this might not entirely be true.

Balwinder Singh, a local leader of the Khet Mazdoor Union in Sangrur told The Quint that the main reasons behind the dismal situation of the labourers in Punjab are indifference of the government and lack of policy-making with the mazdoors in focus.

"Every government announces loan-waivers and other financial assistance schemes for farmers. Have you ever heard of any such scheme for labourers?" he asks. "During the COVID-19 crisis Jat farmers employed local labour when the migrants rushed back home. However, when the migrants returned, they were prioritised over local labour — forcing many out of work. There was no help from the administration."

According to a survey conducted by the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union in 2017, 84% of the state's farm labourers are debt-ridden with private moneylenders having emerged as the most preferred source of borrowing money from.
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"Some moneylenders charge as high as 30-40% interest. Yet there is no government policy to regulate this," Balwinder Singh points out.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as labourers demanded higher wages for work after the migrant exodus, several panchayats across villages in Punjab passed resolutions to cap the wages of farm labourers. These ranged from Rs 600/bigha to Rs 3000/bigha.

Balwinder Singh says that legally the panchayats have no rights to cap the wages in this arbitrary fashion. "They exploited the mazdoors even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decisions of panchayats are heavily influenced by upper-caste farmers in the village," he says.

Elections, Politics, & Farmers' Protest

A 2021 report by Tribune quotes agricultural expert and former professor of Economics at Punjab University, Dr Gian Singh as saying that 92% of farm labourers in Punjab are Dalits.

It must be noted that Scheduled Castes themselves make for 31.9% of Punjab's population.

What then explains the overwhelming participation of Dalits (mostly labourers) like Karnail Singh in the year-long protests against the three farm laws which were introduced by the Modi government in 2020?

Many like Gurdas Singh and Balwinder Singh explain that the show of strength was symbolic. "Some labourers believed that their work is codependent on the farmers and hence the struggle is as much theirs as it is of the farmers. Others joined the farmer unions in large numbers. They cannot say no to people who employ them on their fields and give them work," Gurdas Singh says. "I have myself spent a month at the Tikri Border protest site."

In a bid to consolidate the Dalit vote in the state, the Congress party has named Charanjit Singh Channi as its chief ministerial candidate for upcoming assembly elections.

Farm labourer gather at a chowk in Sangrur.

(Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

Some labourers, however, are upset with Channi. They say that they have no hopes from any political party. "After he was made the chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi issued an order seeking details of landowners possessing land in excess of the limit prescribed in the Land Ceiling Act. One month later, however, he temporarily suspended the order," says Balwinder Singh. "He might be from our caste but like other politicians he will also work for the rich and the powerful," he adds.

Lakhwinder Kaur has no hopes from politics, politicians or elections. She says that the Dalits in the state have achieved everything through mass struggle and movements and they will continue to do so.

"We want them to give us jobs, build schools for our children and help us live a life of dignity. No government, however, works for the poor. We have always struggled to get what is rightfully ours and will continue to do so."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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