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.