Mansa and Sangrur, Punjab: Murti Kaur, 70, entered the room with an uneven gait. It was dark inside, but there was enough sunlight to find a huge steel trunk. She prised it open and pulled out a white plastic bag to bring outside for everyone to see: Bundles of papers placed on a charpai—a copy of police report, a postmortem report and her son’s death certificate.
A farm labourer, Sukhwinder Singh hanged himself in 2014 because he was unable to pay back a loan of Rs 150,000 to the landowner in whose field he had laboured.
Sukhwinder had taken the loan to buy the land on which their house is built, explained Murti, his mother. “He was paying off the loan by working as a farm labourer in their fields, while his wife and I also worked as farm labourers to run our family of five,” she said.
Murti and her family belong to the Dalit community of Mazhabhi Sikhs. In Jhuner village of Mansa district in Punjab where they live, over 2,300 of 7,159 people, 32%, are from the scheduled caste (SC), according to Census 2011. This aligns with the larger picture where 31.94% of Punjab’s population is SC, the largest proportion of any state nationwide.
The zamindar (landowner) paid Sukhwinder Rs 20,000 per season to work on his fields of cotton and wheat, said Murti. After two seasons of sowing, spraying pesticide and cutting, the landowner didn’t pay him anything at all for the third, saying he was adjusting the amount towards the money owed to him.
“He kept quiet to himself. He didn’t eat for eight days,” Murti recalled. “One day when his wife asked him for some money to feed their two little children, he snapped asking where he could get the money from. ‘The zamindar has kept all of it’.”
Days later, Sukhwinder died by suicide in a forest nearby. “He left home at night when all were asleep. We found out the next day at 7 am,” Murti said.
Murti now lives with her two grandchildren, aged 12 and 9. Sukhwinder’s wife was in her 20s when he died and has since remarried.
“I couldn’t have lived without my grandchildren,” Murti said. “But the children are growing. They want everything from proper clothes to proper food and some decent pocket money. Children don’t understand the poverty (gareebi) we live in.”
Since the death of her son, Murti has worked as farm labour in the cotton fields of the same landowner to clear her son’s debt. Since she is a lot older and cannot do the hard labour of her son, she earns just Rs 5,000 per season, but the zamindar keeps Rs 2,500 of it towards repayment of his loan, she said.
For how many years will it go on like this?
“Haley tey koi hisab kitab hi nahi kareya. Kehnde aan karlange. Clear nahi kar kai dita ki aena twada reh gaya, aena kat leya. (No calculations have been done. They say they will do it, but nothing clearly has been said on how much remains and how much has been recovered ),” she said.
“If we refuse to work, they may head to the police station or call the panchayat,” she said. “The zamindar will continue to recover his money from me for however long he wants. When I die, the debt too will hopefully be waived off with me.”
Dalit Suicides Due To Debt Bondage
Debt bondage is a common issue in the district of Malwa—a region in southern Punjab that accounts for 97% of agriculture suicides in the state, according to a joint report by Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. Of these, 94% of farm suicides are due to ‘farm debt’.
The most recent data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India for 2017, 2018 and 2019 together show nearly a 10% decline in the number of farm suicides across the country — from 11,379 in 2016 to 10,281 in 2019. The exception? Punjab, which saw a 7.8% increase; from 280 farm suicides (232 farmers and 48 farm labourers) in 2016 to 302 (239 farmers and 63 farm labourers) in 2019.
In Malwa, according to the joint report of the three universities, Sangrur (22.63%), Mansa (21.30%), Bathinda (17%), Barnala (11.95%), Moga (9.89%) and Ludhiana (5.46%) are the worst affected.
Kiranjit Kaur, 25, is an activist from Jhuner village of Mansa in Punjab who lost her father, a farmer, because of a Rs 800,000 debt burden in 2016. Her family’s cotton crop was ruined by a pest attack in 2014, and on 11 acres of land—eight on lease, three their own—they could only save 18 kg of cotton. It was also the year when the family incurred expenses related to her sister’s wedding and another Rs 100,000 on medical treatment when Kiranjit fell sick soon after.
After her father’s death, Kiranjit started a support group named Kisan Mazdoor Khudkushi Peedit Parivar Committee, seeking justice for the families of both farmers and farm labourers who died by suicide due to never-ending debt distress.
“At times, farm labourers are not even aware of the interest the landowners charge them and continue working for years as bonded labourers,” said Kiranjit, who still hasn’t been able to pay off her father’s debt. “After them, their families suffer and get trapped in the same cycle.”
After numerous visits to the district office, Kiranjit received Rs 300,000 as relief from the government two years after her father’s death. But that wasn’t enough, as she and her family are still struggling to repay the remaining Rs 500,000 of her father’s debt.
Forty five years ago, India promulgated the The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 (amended in 1985), to “prevent the economic and physical exploitation of the weaker section.” Any violation under the Act is a punishable offence with up to three years of imprisonment and Rs 2,000 fine.
Besides, it is also a punishable offence under The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, if the person compelled to work as bonded labour is from the scheduled caste community.
Despite the long-standing legal prohibition, bonded labour is still prevalent in the country where Dalits are discriminated against in the social hierarchy and have to struggle to make ends meet.
“As per the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, it is the duty of a district collector to ensure that there is not a single bonded labour in his/her jurisdiction (district). If such a case is found then the onus to answer the violation of the Act to the labour department is on the district collector,” explained retired professor Manjit Singh, who has studied bonded labour (here and here) at the department of sociology in Panjab University.
Unfortunately, “the officials’ interpretation of bonded labour is still of a person who is zanjeero se bandha hua (tied in chains),” he added.
Jai Singh, general secretary of Dalit Dastan Virodhi Andolan, an organisation working to end slavery and caste discrimination in Punjab since 1985, said the main reason of poor implementation of the Bonded Labour Act is “that the jurisdiction is full of zamindars (landowners) who themselves employ agricultural labourers. It is the same with the judiciary. So chances of getting justice have further been reduced”.
Jai Singh, who died late May of Covid-19, said the bonded labourer system has its roots in the das pratha (slavery) practiced in India during ancient times.
“Those who were in dire need of food to survive used to ask for it. They then would work as slaves for those who provided them with food. Their entire family would then be enslaved—their children, wife. These people were also traded as wedding presents among kings and landowners,” he said.
Even now, “labourers do not have a choice. The only choices they have is either to die of starvation or to survive with whatever they find. If situations like such continue to prevail, then there will be more bonded labourers,” Prof Manjit said. “It is important to have strong agricultural workers’ unions and trade unions to end it.”
While both men and women are victims, Jai Singh said it is worse for women. “We are able to get the men freed from debt bondage, as they can later go to the cities to find work. But there is nothing for the women other than MGNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, India’s national rural job scheme that guarantees 100 days of work in a year for Rs 258 a day in Punjab).”
A March 2021 study titled ‘Agrarian Crisis and Agricultural Labourer Suicides in Punjab’ by the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University has revealed that about 7,303 farm labourers died by suicide between 2000 to 2018 due to low earnings and debt traps. Around 83% of the victims belonged to the SC community.
According to the study, about 79% of farm labourers were burdened with heavy debt, while the rest killed themselves because of socio-economic factors such as domestic disputes and prolonged illnesses. Substance abuse was reported as cause of suicide in 2.35 % of the cases.
Widows, Children Trapped In Debt Spiral
Kesar Singh, a farm labourer in Dhalewan village of Mansa, killed himself in 2012 by overdosing on drugs unable to cope with his looming debt burden.
His wife, Sukhpal Kaur, wasn’t even aware of his predicaments. “He never told me how much debt he was in,” she said, “nor that woh nasha karta tha (he was an addict).”
But there were incidents that raised her doubts.
“Some men used to come outside our house, asking for drugs,” she recalled.
“I later found from my neighbourhood that those men were addicts and Kesar used to spend time with them.”
After his demise, Sukhpal was left to fend for herself and her four children—three teenage daughters and a young son. A Dalit herself, from a community of Ramdasi Sikhs, she took up MGNREGA work in her village.
Things went spiralling down from here.
Five years ago, her family was barely scraping through with her daily wages and monthly widow pension of Rs 750 when she received an electricity bill of Rs 10,000. Sukhpal tried to dispute the huge amount but her plea fell on the deaf ears of officials and she ended up taking a loan from an upper caste villager to pay that bill. Unable to then repay his loan, she started working as a domestic help in his house. Three years later, another electricity bill forced her to take an additional loan of Rs 5,000 from someone else. Soon, her family needed a water pump to cope with insufficient water supply, which led to a third loan of Rs 10,000 from yet a third person.
Sukhpal now works 12-hour days as a domestic help for the three—all upper caste—and her MGNREGA work when she gets it. “I do everything from cleaning cattle dung to mopping rooms and washing clothes,” she said. “Paisa chak liya hai. Vayaaj tey kaam kaari jandey hai. (I have taken the loan, and now I am working to pay it off with interest.)”
This year, her eldest daughter, Jaspreet Kaur,18, started working as a domestic help in one of those homes. Jaspreet completed class 10 from a government school in the village and was hoping to study further. But, Sukhpal, who has herself never been to school, simply could not afford the fees for her daughter’s higher studies.
Living With Debt, Disgust and Dignity
What also bothers Sukhpal is when people talk behind her back. “They often cook up stories about where I go for work. But I don’t do anything wrong,” she said.
In Mauran village of Sangrur district in Punjab, Sarabjit Kaur, 36, has to deal with similar comments since her husband hanged himself in 2018 as he owed a debt of nearly Rs 500,000 to at least seven people.
She spoke of incidents when men in the village asked for sexual favours and offered to clear all her debts in return.
She recalled how a kirana shop owner had once asked her for a similar favour when she had gone to buy some sugar for her family. “I left the shop in such haste that I forgot to take the sugar I had bought.
“I cannot share such incidents with my three sons. Not even with someone in the neighbourhood,” she added, fearing repercussions in the village.
After her husband, Jagga Singh, a Ramdasi Sikh farm labourer in the village died by suicide, all those to whom he owed money started asking Sarabjit to repay.
One Jat Sikh landowner informed her that her husband owed him Rs 150,000. He then said she could do domestic work in his house and he would deduct Rs 400 every month from the money apparently owed to him, she said.
He also suggested Sarabjit send her eldest son (17) to work as a farm labourer to repay the debt.
Sarabjit took up the work for a month, but then discontinued. She asked: “If I had continued to do it, who would have given us food?” She later took up work as a domestic help in four other upper-caste homes in her village for Rs 500 per month from each.
She tried to kill herself twice, Sarabjit said. But stopped herself for the sake of her sons.
For now, she has told the lenders to wait until her eldest son finds a job. “They charge 3% interest every month on the money we took. Who knows how much we will eventually end up paying them?” she asked, unable to calculate the duration of the loan payment based on the ambiguity and uncertainty from the lenders.
‘What’s The Point Of Going To The Protests?’
In 2015, a government of Punjab policy to provide relief to the families of farmer and farm labourers who died by suicide due to debt included a compensation of Rs 300,000, along with rehabilitation and preventive measures such as an atta-dal (flour-lentil) scheme, now named as Smart Ration Card Scheme under the National Food Security Act, 2013 where families will be entitled to subsidised wheat at Rs 2 per kg.
The state then formed a district-level committee—district deputy commissioner, senior superintendent of police, chief medical officer, village sarpanch, and the chief agricultural officer—to receive and verify documents for disbursement of assistance.
“The committee would decide the matter within a period of one month from the date of receipt of completed application. The application should be submitted within a period of three months from the date of suicide,” read the policy.
Murti, still in mourning over her son’s death, filed the application seven months later. “Those who are educated are aware of such processes. We were still not over the grief of my son’s death,” she said, still waiting to hear back on her application.
Sarabjit, who is unlettered, said she struggled to get the paperwork done. “The staff mostly pointed out room numbers to go next to, but I wasn’t sure if I was standing in front of the right room,” she said.
“We would have cremated my husband’s body, but the then sarpanch of the village asked us to first get the postmortem done and apply for relief,” recalled Sarabjit who made countless visits to the officials in the district for two years to complete the paperwork.
“Fir mera ji utar gaya (I then lost my heart in it),” she said.
At every step, she needed more documents. “A photocopy of these documents cost Rs 50 to Rs 100,” she said. “If I can feed my family of four a simple meal with that much, then why should I make visits again?”
Filled with despair, Sukhpal, who has attended several protests by women fighting for their rights, has now given up on receiving any assistance from the government. “What’s the point of going to the protests also, when we will not get anything,” she said.
The chief agricultural officer in Mansa, Manjeet Singh, said they don't immediately declare late applications invalid but give time to the family to produce proof showing the victim had taken up a loan from a ‘government institution’, along with a postmortem and police report.
Kiranjit Kaur, who runs the Kisan Mazdoor Khudkushi Peedit Parivar Committee, argued that it is difficult, if not impossible, for farm labourers to produce this evidence.
“In most cases, families of farm labourers don’t own land to place one as security and then take loan from a government bank or institute,” Kiranjit said. “They mostly turn to the zamindars they work for or private moneylenders in their village.”
Murti, Sarabjit and Sukhpal are examples of many other farm labourers who are struggling to survive in a system where they are exploited by moneylenders and ignored by the authorities.
According to a study, Agrarian Crisis and Agricultural Labourer Suicides in Punjab, a farm labour suicide victim’s family in Punjab reels under an average debt burden of Rs 99,579, and nearly 93% of this debt is from non-institutional sources such as moneylenders, large farmers, friends and relatives.
“In most cases, the records (related to loan) are kept by the moneylenders and not to be found with farm labourers. So it gets aukha (difficult) for such families to produce a proof of debt,” said Lachhman Singh Sewewala, general secretary of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, which works on issues related to livelihood and land rights for Dalits and caste discrimination.
Mukesh Malaudh, president of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, an organisation working for the land rights of Dalits in Punjab since 2014, pointed to issues of Dalit households within lal lakir—land which is part of the village habitation and is used only for non-agricultural purposes.
“Many Dalits are in possession of households within lal lakir, but do not have any legal rights on it. The land they live in is not registered in their name, then how will they be able to secure loans from banks or other government institutions?” he asked.
Sarabjit and several other SC families in her neighborhood, have houses built on an old sewer line—purana nalla, she said, of their village which falls in lal lakir.
Government Unfulfilled Promise: ‘Sadi Gal Jaag Di Rahe’
Government paperwork is not the only hurdle.
Veerpal Kaur, 42, of Ralla village in Mansa who has all the papers, including records of debts taken from an arhtiya (commision agent) and a private moneylender by her husband, hasn’t received the relief yet.
Her husband killed himself 18 years ago.
“Some people used to come asking for a bribe of Rs 5,000 with a promise to release relief,” she said. “We didn’t have money to manage food then. So we told them we will pay them off when we receive the relief.”
Holding a torn copy of a survey report, she pointed to her husband's name, Dharamvir Singh, among the list of farm suicide victims in Mansa.
A small-scale, backward caste farmer, Rai Sikh with half an acre of land who also worked as a farm labourer for Rs 150 a day to earn extra money, Dharamvir was in debt for Rs 800,000.
“We figured that my husband’s case has been rejected because those families in the village who had bribed them got relief,” she said.
The government authorities insist they have a systematic process in place to provide relief.
“We follow the procedure as per the government instruction,” said deputy commissioner of district, Mansa, Mohinder Pal.“If the conditions are met, the case gets accepted. Otherwise, it is rejected.”
Frustrated with her situation, Veerpal Kaur contested the general elections as an independent candidate from Bathinda in 2019. With just 2,000 votes, she lost.
“The government had stopped listening to our pleas. They had forgotten about families where farm suicide had taken place. Muda jagan de marey khade hue, sadi gal jaag di rahe (I contested to bring our issues to light again),” she said.
There has been no new policy by the government regarding farm suicides and debt bondages.
The ruling Congress government in Punjab in its last budget in March 2021 announced allocation of Rs 526 crore for waiving the loans of landless farm labourers.
But Lachhman Singh of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union said it is an insufficient amount for the nearly 7.5 lakh farm labourers in the state who have at least Rs 6,000 crore of debt on them, according to him.
“The government should instead make attempts to let the farm labourers stand on their feet by providing jobs and proper education and medical facilities to them,” he said. “The government only sees them as a vote bank.”
Punjab is scheduled to go to assembly polls early in 2022.
“It is noted whenever such announcement (relating to debt waiver) is made lesser number of deaths by suicide among farm labourers are observed,” pointed Sukhpal Singh, principal economist at Punjab Agriculture Univeristy. “It does give hope to many, but may again return to an upward trend when the promise remains unfulfilled.”
In 2016, when the Congress government in its election manifesto of Punjab legislative assembly announced a debt waiver, debt-related suicide fell to 202. However, a year later it rose again to 265, and in 2018, it went up further to 358, Sukhpal Singh said.
There is a possible solution when it comes to issues related to Punjab’s Village Common Land (Regulation) Act, 1961, said Mukesh Malaudh of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee. The Act has a provision to lease land to landless farmers through an auction. Cultivation on 33% of this land is reserved for scheduled castes.
For years, zamindars have sponsored proxy candidates from the reserved category, many their own workers, depriving the scheduled castes of their right to cultivate land. Now, said Mukhesh Malaudh, the SC community is building awareness and many are coming forward to lease their own land in villages.
“If this issue is resolved completely, they will be able to cultivate vegetables on the leased land and don’t necessarily have to buy it from the market. In a way their expenses would be reduced and they won’t fall in debt traps,” Mukesh said.
Moreover, “Many Dalit women who rear cattle, walk kilometres to find fodder, which they mostly get at the boundaries of fields of ‘upper caste’ landowners or farmers. Dalit women are sexually harassed due to it. They are often asked for sexual favours by the upper castes in exchange for fodder,” he said.
But now, “If families from the community have their own land, they can grow fodder on it, and take the cattle anytime of the day. The women will also be safer and able to find enough time to engage in other works such as MGNREGA or stitching to support their families.”
‘Keep Fighting For Rights, Govt Will Hear Us’
Veerpal, an anganwadi (a child care centre) helper, undeterred by her election loss, continues her fight by joining protests against the three farm laws in the state and hopes to go to New Delhi to fight for her cause too.
She is worried that if the state mandi board is dismantled following the enactment of the new laws, her son, 20, who works as a labourer under arhtiya, will be left without work. “How will lakhs of families like ours run their homes?” she asked, as they together set aside Rs 5,000 from their earnings every month to repay the debt.
Murti, too, who is now ailing and unable to walk properly, hasn’t given up hope to be free of debt bondage and raise her two grandchildren the way her son would have wanted.
“One has to keep fighting for their rights,” asserted Veerpal. “Someday the government will hear us.”
(Sanskriti Talwar is a Delhi-based independent journalist who covers gender issues in rural India.)
(This story was produced by Article 14. It was written as a part of Reporting on Trafficking and Slavery, a media skill development programme run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.)