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

28 June 2020
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
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

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.”

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: coronavirus lockdown Dalits Mazhabi Sikhs Indentured Labour Punjab
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