Updated: Jul 26, 2020
Ludhiana: The announcement was made from the loudspeaker of a gurdwara in south Punjab: “The panchayat has fixed the rate of paddy sowing at Rs 3,200 (per acre) and that of basmati at Rs 3,500. If someone pays more, he will have to bear a fine of Rs 50,000 as decided by the panchayat.”
This summer in Punjab’s paddy plantation season, which stretches from 10 June until the first week of July, the state’s traditional caste fault lines were on obvious display. Panchayats sermons echoed from loudspeakers of gurdwaras warning upper-caste Jat Sikh landowners to pay only a fixed rate to mostly Dalit landless agricultural labourers.
A video where a panchayat member communicated the diktat issued by the village administration went viral in early June. “The daily wage rate has been fixed at Rs 300 while the half-day labour charges will be Rs 200. No meals will be served to labourers,” the man in the video said, adding that employers would not be responsible for any accidents that might occur on the field.
Despite a labour shortage during the paddy season after migrant workers, mostly from Bihar, fled the state to return to their homes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the wages of local Dalit workers were artificially held down by panchayats across the state.
Many panchayats, mostly in Malwa region and southern Punjab, added a warning to their announcements: anyone—landowner or labourer—who refused to comply would be penalised and boycotted by the village.
Villages reported increased instances of caste discrimination such as refusing to serve Dalit workers food and restrictions on travelling for work until paddy sowing in their own village had been completed.
Article 17 of the Indian constitution states that the practise of untouchability in any form is forbidden. “The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. The Constitution details the punishment for such offences in The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
One of the crimes under section 3 of the Act includes intentionally insulting or intimidating “with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view”. As per the act, the crime is punishable with imprisonment anywhere between six months to five years and a fine.
In Ghanauri Khurd village in Sangrur district of Punjab, 125 km east of capital Chandigarh, the panchayat passed a resolution on 5 May to ask labourers (mostly Dalit Sikhs) to bring their own food and utensils. The panchayat resolved that the small number of migrant labourers who had stayed back would be provided 5 kg of raw rice after they planted paddy in one acre of land, but no food would be served to them.
In previous years, not only have landowners ensured that food was served to migrant workers, they also provided accommodation and liquor. These workers were paid between Rs 2,700-3,500 per acre or more, depending upon the area. Rates depend on the size of the land and location in the state. Agricultural workers get more money in Ludhiana as compared to Barnala or other backward districts of the state.
Balwant (name changed), a Dalit Sikh resident, who was clad in a faded yellow T-shirt and a checked pajamas which he rolled up while working on the farm, told Article 14 that while local labourers were promised a fair daily wage rate of Rs 300, he was disheartened by the discrimination. His face was sunburned from hours working in the fields for eight years. Like all the others, he worked barefoot, a loose turban protecting his head from the sun.
Panchayat Causing The Rift
The panic in the farming community was triggered when local farmers in parts of Bathinda, Amritsar and Ludhiana said they paid Rs 4,000-4,500 per acre for paddy plantation at the start of the season. Panchayats met and came up with the solution of a fixed rate.
Paddy is cultivated on nearly 26 lakh hectare of land in Punjab. Dalits constitute 32% of the total population. The majority are agricultural labourers or daily wage workers. Dalit Sikhs comprise 60% of the state’s total SC population.
“Farmers in villages and local labourers want to live peacefully, but the panchayats are creating a rift between the two groups,” said Lakhveer Singh, state secretary of Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union, a rights organization for Dalit labourers.
“By asking the Dalit labourers to bring their own utensils for food or not allowing them to travel to other villages for work, landowners are violating the rights of labourers who are without any work owing to the coronavirus pandemic for past three months.”
The warning by panchayats against any violation of their resolution was an indication of “deep-rooted hatred against Dalits that has now come out openly”, he said.
Cases of caste-based discrimination by Jat Sikhs against Dalits are rampant in Punjab. Despite the fact that Sikhism was formed on the basis of equality, caste discrimination seeped into the religion as Hindus converted to the religion, bringing their culture along with them into the new Sikhism. Many villages in Punjab have two gurudwaras—one for Dalits and the other for Jat Sikhs. Incidents where Dalits are not allowed in Jat gurdwaras are also common.
On 11 June, a delegation of Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union met Gobind Singh Longowal, chief of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), a Sikh body that manages gurudwaras in many states, to discuss the discrimination.
Panchayats, especially in Sangrur and Barnala districts of the state, were not only discriminating against Dalit labour but were also imposing restrictions on their movement until the paddy plantation in their own villages had been completed. According to the diktats issued by the Sangrur panchayat (a copy is available with Article 14), labourers could not move to other villages until the paddy sowing in their own village was over.
Ram Saroop Sharma, Sarpanch of Gurusar village in Bathinda district, where a similar resolution had been passed, said the state was facing a labour shortage due to which the charges had skyrocketed. To counter this issue, farmers had approached panchayats to keep a check on the high labour charges.
Many farmers are already buried under the burden of loans and it has become difficult for them to pay high labour charges, said Sharma.
Gian Singh, a professor at the Economics department of Punjabi University, said labour charges in Punjab are determined by demand and supply but in this exceptional year, when the supply of labour fell dramatically, the farmer vs rural labour issue became a upper caste vs Dalit tussle.
“It is important to understand that the local labourers were sitting idle for the past three months and didn’t earn anything and it was their right to get this amount,” said Singh. “However, on the other hand, the financial condition of small farmers is also not strong that they can pay increased labour charges.”
Narbhinder Singh, the District Development and Panchayat Officer, said no such case has thus far come to their notice. He said it was unconstitutional to pass resolutions fixing labour charges or discriminating against domestic labour.
Cases of discrimination were also reported in Moga and Mansa districts in Punjab, but the state government did not act against panchayat members.
Dalit rights activist Mukesh Malaud, the president of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, said Dalit labourers from Patiala, Moga, Bathinda, Sangrur and Barnala had told him they were being discriminated against by the panchayats.
“There are many villages where oral resolutions have been passed and announced from gurdwaras,” said Malaud. “ These kinds of resolutions by panchayats have not even come to the notice of anyone. Different villages are fixing different labourer charges for the domestic labourers, but the consent of these Dalit workers hasn’t been sought.”
Dalit labourers had held meetings in villages such as Khadial and Mehlan in Sangrur district. "How can a panchayat fix labour charges?” asked Satwinder Kaur, a Dalit labourer who attended the meeting in Mehlan. “While they happily pay a handsome amount along with food to the labourers from other states, what is the problem in offering that to us as well?"
(The author is Ludhiana-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)