COVID-19: Dominant-caste panchayats in Punjab pass resolutions to reduce labour wages

A worker puts harvested green peas into a bag in a field in Amritsar, Punjab, on 22 Jan 2017. With the nationwide lockdown causing a lack of migrant farm labourers in Punjab several dominant-caste controlled panchayats across the state have passed resolutions which reduce the wages of Mazhabi Sikh tillers, force them to work under landlords in their own villages and increase the practice of untouchability against them. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty Images
28 June, 2020

On 30 May, the dominant caste landowners of Ghanauri Khurd village in Punjab’s Sangrur district organised a meeting of their panchayat. Under the supervision of Rajdeep Kaur, the sarpanch of the village, they passed a list of resolutions against the wages, welfare and freedom of the primarily Dalit daily-wage labourers of the village. The resolution capped the wages of workers at Rs 3,800 for sowing an acre of paddy and capped daily wage at Rs 300. The resolution stated that Dalits from the village can only go to work in farms in other villages after they had already sowed all the fields of upper-caste landowners in Ghanauri Khurd. The resolution also went on to state that landlords were not bound to give workers evening meals and that Dalit workers would have to bring their own utensils for food. This continues a long trend of discrimination and untouchability faced by Dalits who converted to Sikhism and are now categorised as Mazhabi Sikhs. Nearly 35 percent of the village come from Scheduled Caste and Backward Class communities. The resolution ended by saying that any Dalit who refused to work for the new wage that was imposed by the Jatt landlords would face a complete social boycott. Most Mazhabi Sikhs have no agrarian land, only having small residential plots surrounded by Jatt-owned fields. The resolutions threatened to not allow Dalit labourers to walk across the fields if they did not work for the landlords under the new wages, practically marooning them in their land in the middle of a pandemic.

The resolution passed in Ghanauri Khurd is one of several such resolutions that have been passed by dominant-caste controlled panchayats or groups of zamindars across Punjab which reduce the wages of Mazhabi Sikh tillers, force them to work under landlords in their own villages and increase the practice of untouchability against them. Many landlords in Punjab relied heavily on poorly paid migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. However, due to the nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, many migrant labourers have returned to their home states causing a labour shortage. 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.

On 11 June, Tajinder Kaur, the chairperson of Punjab’s State Commission for the Scheduled Castes, took cognisance of the resolution passed by the Ghanauri Khurd panchayat and asked the deputy commissioner of Sangrur to investigate matter. The deputy commissioner was asked to submit an action taken report by 19 July.

Kaur told me that as per law, the panchayat has no authority to issue such resolutions. “Such resolutions encourage factionalism in the villages and disrupt the communal harmony, which would not be acceptable,” she said. Kaur said that they had come across the resolution on social media where they were able to find several more. “We received a couple of such videos and resolutions,” she told me. “Such illegal resolutions, like those passed by Ghanauri Khurd in May were unheard of in Punjab. These farm labourers are from Dalit Mazhabi or other Scheduled Caste communities and the landless ones from higher castes are few. Not giving food to the farm labour and asking them to bring their own utensils is like taking untouchability and lack of empathy to an entirely new low.” Kaur also stressed that such resolutions will further perpetuate discrimination against Dalits if not stopped immediately.

Latif Ahmad, the sub-divisional magistrate of Dhuri under whose jurisdiction Ghanauri Khurd lies, told me that the issue has been resolved. He said that the panchayat had been informed that it was not within their power to make or enforce such resolutions. “While the farmers can decide how much to pay, the daily wagers are very much within their rights to not accept the same,” Ahmad said. “But a few of the resolutions are violative of basic labour rights. Farmers are also distressed with their crops not fetching enough in markets because of the low demand post the onset of the pandemic. However, we shall send the report soon while the message has been conveyed to both the parties for being reasonable and working together to resolve the dispute.”

On 19 June, I spoke to Jagdev Singh who spoke on behalf of his wife, Rajdeep Kaur the sarpanch of Ghanauri Khurd. He complained about labourers from the Dalit community demanding higher wages during a period when agricultural profits were at an all-time low. “We had to just throw our vegetables or plough crops down due to decreased consumption,” he told me. “The profit margins after the cost of fertilizers, pesticides, electricity, water, weeding and working for months, does not leave any scope for paying double the wages as being demanded by the local labour.”

While the exploitative resolution in Ghanauri Khurd was nullified by Ramvir, the deputy commissioner of Sangrur, Kaur told me authorities hadn’t been as quick in other similar situations. When she spoke to me over the phone on 22 June, she said, “In fact, I got to know that such resolutions have been passed across scores of villages in the state resulting in stalemate and tension in many villages.” She continued, “That’s why in order to avert any escalation, I have asked the director of the rural development and panchayats department of the state to scrap these anti-labour resolutions being passed by various panchayats and submit an action taken report to us. I had asked the director to submit the report by 19 June 2020 after scrapping all such resolutions, but I am yet to see any action on ground or the report regarding the action taken.” Gian Chand, a member of the Scheduled Caste Commission told me that they had taken cognisance of similar resolutions in seven other villages and sought reports and action from district commissioners. 

Another similar incident occurred in Moga district’s Chuhar Chak village. The dominant caste landlords of the village passed a resolution that fixed the rate of sowing common paddy at Rs 3,200 and Rs 3,500 for basmati. The landlords further announced that anybody paying more than these rates will be facing a fine for not obeying the orders. The resolution also stated that daily wage was fixed at Rs 300, a half day’s wage at Rs 200 and that no food would be given to farm labourers. Jagjit Singh Bal, the panchayat officer of Moga district, said that complaints about the resolution had reached the authorities. “The panchayat representatives tendered a written apology and informed me that they had no part to play in the resolution,” Bal said. “They also informed us that it was only a few zamindars or landed farmers who made the resolution. We have been assured that this will not happen again.” Gurmukh Singh, a zonal member of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee—an informal, left-oriented coalition of landless labourers and marginalised farmers in Punjab—said that the resolution was passed by the panchayat in Chuhar Chak but was now being covered up as the unilateral actions of just a few landlords.

A video from Duhal Kohna village in Tarn Taran district, shows a Sikh priest and dominant-caste landlords also enforcing a deeply exploitative resolution passed by the zamindars of the village. In the video the priest can be seen performing Ardas—a Sikh prayer—in a Gurudwara and fixing the daily wage rates at Rs 250 per day. The video also shows then fixing the sowing rates of Jhona at Rs 2,500 per acre. “Anybody giving more than this, would have to bear the wrath of Baba,” says the priest in the video.

Harinder Singh, a local leader of the Akali Dal from Duhal Kohna told me that Avtar Singh, the sarpanch, had appealed to Mazhabi Sikhs to assemble at the Gurudwara from loudspeakers. He said the Mazhabi labourers refused to attend the meeting. “They insulted everyone, and they insulted the panchayat too,” Harinder told me. “We then went door to door to convince them and they finally agreed for a rate of Rs 3500 per acre for paddy sowing and Rs 300 as daily wages. Earlier the migrant labour used to take Rs 2000 per acre. However, while a compromise was finally reached, two of these Mazhabi Sikhs who don’t even work as daily wagers got up and instigated the rest to reject these rates. Following this insult, the panchayat decided to slash down the rates to Rs 2500 per acre and Rs 250 as daily wages.”

He said that not a single migrant labourer had come to the village during this harvest and sowing season. “Now we are literally pursuing and requesting these local labourers to sow our paddy,” he said. He added that the refusal of Mazhabi Sikhs to work for low wages has led to a delay in paddy sowing. “The work done on contract whether it is sowing or spraying, has never involved any entitlement to meals,” he argued. Harinder’s portrayal of events was similar to several other dominant caste landowners I had spoken to. They were furious about what they described as the defiance of Mazhabi labourers to work for low wages and saw it as an attack against their authority in these villages.

The accounts of Mazhabi labourers I spoke to was strikingly different, highlighting their hand to mouth existence, the economic insecurity brought about by the nationwide lockdown and stressing the punitive ways through which dominant-caste landlords forced them to work for meagre wages. Mandeep Singh Sibian, a Mazhabi farm labourer from Sibian village in Bathinda district, told me that the rates landlords had fixed this year was even lower than what migrant labourers used to get earlier. “Last year, the rates for paddy sowing varied between Rs 3200 to 3300 per acre in our village,” he told me. “The panchayat this time passed the edict to fix the rate at Rs 3000 per acre for normal paddy. We also decided that we would rather sit idle for three months than to work at such low wages.”

Like in a few other parts of Punjab, farm labourer unions had been able to intervene in his village and increase the wages enforced by the panchayat. He said, “Finally, the rates were fixed at Rs 4,500 with the intervention of PKMU and BKU Ugrahan.” The Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union and the Bharatiya Kisan Union are independent farm labour unions. Mandeep said that in other villages where the panchayat, controlled by dominant caste groups, were unwilling to agree to a higher wage, they often used coercive measures to force Mazhabis into labour. “In Kot Bhara, a nearby village, the khet mazdoor are working for Rs 3,200 per acre even though they had just asked for Rs 3,500 per acre,” he said. “They were told that the farmers won’t allow their goats to graze in their fields or let them collect the straw for their cattle. They were threatened with complete social ostracisation if they didn’t work.”

Kaka Singh, a farm labourer involved with the PKMU, said that the situation was very similar in his village. He is from Jeeda village which is also in the Bathinda district. He said, “Kuch bande ne ehnaa pindaan vich jinhaan nu mazdooran prati nafrat hai”—A few individuals in the village harbour a deep hatred towards labourers. “Both the parties, those who have to get the paddy sown and who would work in the fields have to participate in all such kinds of resolutions,” Kaka told me. “But in our village, there were 150 landlords and no farm labourers when the resolution was passed not to increase the rates from the last year’s Rs 3500. Over the years, the cost of every commodity has increased but these farmers have never questioned any such rise and all the resistance and opposition was reserved only for the poor Dalits in Punjab’s villages.” Kaka said that in his village too after the PKMU intervened, a compromise was reached with the landlords to pay a wage of Rs 4000 per acre.

Zora Singh Nasrali, the state president of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union—an independent farm labourer’s union—told me that panchayats across Punjab were arbitrarily settling the paddy sowing rates while ignoring the interests of workers. “This behaviour has led to resentment amongst the farm labourers,” Nasrali told me. “These labourers were neither present during these resolutions nor gave their accord for them. In a few villages these Mazhabis were even sarpanches but they were asked to implement these resolutions literally.” Nasrali was referring to dominant-caste landowners strong-arming Dalit sarpanches elected in SC reserved panchayats to pass resolutions that were against their own communities. He said that in certain places landlords paying more than the rates laid down in panchayat resolutions, have been threatened with a fine, while farm workers are being socially ostracised. Social boycotts like this are an offence under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

“Though panchayats cannot issue such dictums, but involvement of the influential members of the village in such resolutions lends them immunity from the officials supposed to take action against such illegal acts,” Nasrali said. He however said that often the wages demanded by labourers during the shortage might not be entirely fair either. “Many a times those demanding such high wages themselves never go to work,” he said. “Under such circumstances normal farmers feel deeply agitated and slowly with the majority turning against these labourers, the latter are forced to retreat. Under such circumstances, the organisations working for unity between farmers and labourers should come forward to resolve the issue amicably.”

Gurmukh Singh of the ZPSC, said that the resolutions had now been passed in villages across all the 22 districts in the state. He showed me 17 such resolutions that they had been able to collect and upload onto the organisation’s Facebook page, but said there were many more that they hadn’t been able to trace or were not written down. Gurmukh said that in many villages, panchayats decided to impose fines as high as Rs 50,000 on individual landlords who paid higher wages than those set in the resolutions. “FIRs should be lodged against those who passed such unconstitutional resolutions,” he said. “Zamindars cannot subject these Dalit farm labourers to bonded labour. It is the right of the worker to decide as to where he or she wants to work and at what wages. Nobody can force them to do otherwise. And in these resolutions the landlords have completely washed their hands of responsibility if farm labourers meet with accidents.” He added that a de-escalation of this volatile situation in the state can only be achieved by ensuring that labourers were given the right to choose their own employment and the conditions under which they want to work.