In the farm laws protests, are Punjab’s landless peasants getting left behind?

On 15 March, some 4,500 farm labourers protested against the 2020 farm laws at a rally in Punjab's Bathinda district. The state’s landless farm labourers do not appear to be as dominant in the protests as farmers. COURTESY RANDEEP MADDOKE
22 March, 2021

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.  

I asked Bhajan what she thought of “mazdoor–kisan ekka,” a slogan raised at the Barnala rally calling for unity between farmers and labourers. Bhajan, who had attended the Barnala rally, said, “We will walk with the farmers and we expect them to not abuse us in return, and allow us to harvest a little fodder for our cattle from along the boundaries of their fields.” She had also visited the Tikri sit-in recently, as a part of a group led by the PKMU. “But nobody talked to us, we were simply there at Tikri, not knowing what was happening,” she told me.

Another group of women at Vajidke Khurd, a village on the Barnala-Raikot state highway, said something similar when I met them after the Barnala rally. They were daily wage workers in farm fields and all of them were from the Dalit community. None of them was aware of the massive rally which had taken place nearby. Within 15 minutes of our interaction, four of them fetched cards that had been issued to them under MGNREGA—all of the cards were blank. They said they had worked as part of the scheme, but officials refused to make entries in their cards and did not pay them. 

Among the group was Sonu Kaur, a woman in her mid-thirties, who lost her husband about two years ago and has to support two children. She said she was in debt and worked in farms to make ends meet. Her ration card—locally referred to as “blue card”—showed that she had last received wheat in July last year. Sonu said that she had not received any foodgrains from the government since then. “Sometimes we go to sleep hungry, in fear that we wouldn’t get work the next day and that our foodgrains would get exhausted.” A few others in the group also said they had trouble getting rations. While I was talking to Sonu, word spread that a journalist was taking interviews in the village and three members of the village’s panchayat rushed to meet me. Baljit Singh, one of them, who is also Dalit, told me that the “blue cards” have been replaced by smart cards, “and the cases of those who haven’t received yet have been sent to the office.” He was defensive when I questioned him about the labourers’ complaints.

The troubles of the farm labourers appeared to be the same in every village I visited.  In the first week of March, Paramjit Kaur, an aged woman in Sangrur district’s Gandua village, also said she had not received ration from the government in six months. She told me she was asked to surrender her blue card six months ago, to get a smart card in return. “There is no ration for us as we are yet to get the smart card.” 

I spoke to Paramjit in the compound of a Valmiki temple in the village, where earlier that day Harbhagwan Singh, a state-committee member of the PKMU, had addressed a gathering of around fifty labourers. She was a part of the gathering and I spoke to her, and other villagers, after it was over. The Scheduled Caste community of the village holds its gatherings in the temple’s compound, while upper-caste farmers, who are mostly Jat Sikhs, have two gurdwaras for such congregations. The gathering was among the many efforts that the PKMU cadre took to mobilise farm labourers for a state-wide rally on 15 March in Bathinda. 

Unlike several other villages, the residents of Gandua gathered at the Valmiki temple were aware of the farm laws. All of them held PKMU flags. Harpal Kaur, a woman in her mid-thirties, said she was convinced that their participation in the movement against the laws was essential for their survival. But it was difficult for her to be as involved as she would like. “We don’t have resources to fight governments,” she said. “We hope that the zamindars”—landowners—“would take up the responsibility of ferrying us to any programme of the farmers struggle in Delhi or in Punjab.”  

Harpal’s concern over logistics was a common theme across villages—the lack of transport was a major hindrance for landless labourers to participate in the anti-farm laws movement. The secretary of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, a coalition that works for landless labourers, also named Paramjit Kaur, told me, “The immediate problem that they face to reach out to any protest venue is lack of vehicles, and then they live hand to mouth for survival.” During the gathering in Gandua, Harbhagwan told the labourers that a vehicle would ferry them to Bathinda for the 15 March rally. The PKMU president, Zora Singh Nasrali, told me that the BKU (EU) was extending help in providing vehicles to ferry the cadre of the PKMU to the rally as well. 

Paramjit told me that to truly realise the slogan of kisan mazdoor ekka, landowning farmers needed to understand and help in addressing the problems of the landless. “The farmers need to understand that their fight against the farm laws would be incomplete in absence of the huge army of the landless peasantry class,” she said. “In villages, there is still propaganda among the farmers that they do not need the support of the landless.” Paramjit added that “there were also the instances wherein the landless were asked to carry the flags of the kisan organisations as a pre-condition for them to be taken to Delhi for the protests.”

Tarsem Singh, a state-committee member and the Mukstar district chief of the PKMU, also echoed this sentiment. He told me he joined the PKMU in 2002, after noticing the “atrocities inflicted upon the landless by the landlords.” Although he could see that the kisan organisations knew how important the participation of the farm labourers is in the current movement, he felt that the big landowners did not understand the need for uniting with the farm labourers. 

Neither were the farm unions raising issues of the landless peasantry nor were they making sufficient effort to give the workers a platform in the ongoing movement, according to Tarsem. He characterised BKU (EU) and the PKMU as exceptions and said that in the past, both the unions had raised their voice for the rights of farm labourers. According to him, the unions had also raised their voice when the state government refused to include labourers in a debt-relief scheme in 2017 even though a substantial number of farm labourers were taking their lives due to debt. And indeed, even in the ongoing movement, it appeared that both the unions were trying to arrange transport and mobilise landless labourers. 
Mukesh Maloud, the president of the ZPSC, said, “Farmers should begin shedding their differences with the landless that have cropped up on the caste lines,” he said. Maloud told me about a recent issue between the landowners and the landless labourers. “In the last paddy sowing season during the COVID lockdown, the local labourers in villages were harassed with resolutions on restricting labour wages,” he said. In June 2020, The Caravan had also reported that “upper-caste dominated panchayats across Punjab have begun using punitive resolutions and sanctions to control the wage and freedom of Mazhabi Sikh labourer who they are now reliant on.”

Maloud pointed out that there is no representation of any labour organisation in the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a collective of farmers’ groups leading the ongoing movement against three farm laws that held talks with the government. While discussing the role of landless peasants in the movement, Sewewala also emphasised that it was important for landless farmers to have a say in the movement and in negotiations with the government so that they could put forth the issues that were specific to them. “Their own political identity should emerge now,” he said. When asked why the labourers were not as dominant in the protests, Sewewala said that they had to stay put in Punjab for their survival as most are daily wage earners. He said they could play a major role in the anti-farm laws movement even if protested within the state and not on Delhi’s borders. 

Accordingly, on 28 February, when I asked Sewewala why the PKMU cadre did not show up at Tikri despite the announcement to gather there, he said, “We have called our entire cadre back to Punjab to mobilise people for a state-level rally of farm labourers in Bathinda on 15 March.” But the 15 March rally was a smaller event of some 4,500 cadre. “I told you, the reason is the same that the farm labourers could not afford to skip even a single day’s wage,” Sewewala told me after the event. 

During the Bathinda rally, the speakers emphasised why the movement was important for farm labourers. Pointing to how difficult it was already for farm labourers to get their rightful share in the village commons land, Sewewala said, “If you do not raise your voice now then your right over your land would be snatched by the Adanis and the Ambanis.” Sewewala had expressed a similar sentiment at the Barnala rally. He also put the onus on landowners to reach out to the landless peasantry. He recited a song by the revolutionary poet Sant Ram Udasi on farmers and labourers sharing their grief. “Gal lag ke siri de jatt roya, bohla vicho neer vagya. Lya tangli naseeba nu faroliye, toodi vicho putt Jagya”—The landowner hugged the landless as the crops shed the tears, urging Jagga, the landless, to clear their differences.