On 21 February, over one lakh farmers and agricultural labourers gathered at a rally in Punjab’s Barnala district to pledge unity in the movement against the 2020 farm laws. The rally was organised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) and the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, two of the biggest unions that represent the interests of the landless peasants and work in tandem with each other. The BKU (EU) president, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, addressed the crowd and appealed for farm labourers to reach Tikri—a major sit-in against the laws on Delhi’s borders—for a show of strength on 27 and 28 February. But on 28 February, the cadre of the PKMU was absent from Tikri and there was no large gathering of farm labourers. When I called PKMU’s general secretary, Lachhman Singh Sewewala, he said, post the Barnala rally, he told Ugrahan that the labourers could not afford to reach Delhi.
Over the course of the protests, activists and union leaders have repeatedly stressed how the farm laws would impact the predominantly landless farm labourers just as much as the landowning farmers. Historically, the two communities have often been at odds with each other in Punjab due to age-old class and caste dynamics that favour the landowners. Most farm labourers in the state are landless and a significant number of them are from the Scheduled Caste community. By most estimates, the Dalit community forms about 32 per cent of Punjab’s population, but they own only around 3 percent of land. Jat Sikhs, who form about 25 percent of the population, are known to own large swathes of farmland. Yet, despite the calls for landless farm labourers of Punjab to participate in the movement, in six months of reporting on the farmers’ movement, it was evident that they were not as dominant in the protests as farmers.
I travelled across the Malwa region—which accounts for more than half of Punjab’s area and spans the southern half of the state—to understand the issues that landless labourers face. While some of them lacked an understanding of the farm laws and how the legislation would impact them, some others were unable to participate in the farmers’ protests even though they wanted to. Many of them said that they could not afford to participate in the protests due to the precarious nature of their livelihood and faced issues such as difficulties in availing benefits of the public-distribution system. Activists on the ground also said that while the protests highlighted a host of issues concerning the farming community—such as farmers suicides—the unions leading it did not put a spotlight on the troubles of the landless labourers. In fact, there is no labour union involved in the decision-making process regarding the protests. Sewewala, as well as other activists, emphasised that the onus was on the landowning farmers as well as the farmers’ unions to reach out to the labourers.
In the first week of March, I met around two dozen women carrying shovels to clear wild bushes along a small irrigation canal at Khunde Halal, a village in Muktsar district. Almost none of them understood the new farm laws and were more focussed on their day-to-day difficulties. The chief among their issues was payments under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, scheme. “We have not got any money for the work under NREGA for the past several months,” Bhajan Kaur, a woman in her mid-sixties, told me.