Agricultural Labourers in Punjab: Struggling for Survival

There have been many studies of the situation of agricultural labourers and dalit rural poor in Punjab. In this section, we discuss some of the relevant aspects of dalit agricultural workers’ lives, in the light of the observations of such studies.

The impact of the agrarian crisis on peasants in Punjab is more widely known, but it has had a grievous impact on agricultural labourers as well.

Work and Wages

The state of work and wages in Punjab, supposedly one of the more developed and prosperous states, is shocking. In ‘Status of Local Agricultural Labour in Punjab’, a study sponsored by the Punjab State Farmers’ Association and authored by R S Ghuman, Inderjeet Singh, and Lakhwinder Singh of the Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala, in November 2007 (henceforth Ghuman et al), the bulk of local labourers get work in agriculture for only 8-10 days a month.

The same study notes that in Malwa, the phenomenon of workers working for over 8 hours a day is much higher than in other regions: “... Region-wise, the highest proportion (68.22 per cent) of labourers works between 8 to 12 hours a day in Malwa, followed by Majha (58.33 per cent) and Doaba (42.86 per cent). The proportion of labourers working from 7 to 8 hours per day is 41.67, 57.14 and 29.46 per cent, respectively, in Majha, Doaba and Malwa regions. Only 2.32 per cent labourers have to work for more than 12 hours a day and that too, in Malwa. It is, thus, clear that the proportion of labourers, who work beyond the stipulated period of 8 hours, is highest in Malwa.”

Ghuman et al note that “... It is really very revealing that in a developed state like Punjab about 27 per cent casual labourers are getting wages between Rs. 40 and Rs. 60 per day. ... The proportion of labourers getting wage between Rs. 80 to Rs. 100 is just 4.76 per cent. Only 0.48 per cent labourers in agriculture earn more than Rs. 100 a day. .... On an average, 14.60 per cent labourers are getting a wage rate between Rs. 40 and Rs. 60 per day, across all the three sectors. About 52 per cent labourers get between Rs. 60 and Rs. 80 per day. Approximately 32 per cent labourers are getting a wage rate between Rs. 80 and Rs. 100 a day. Only 2 per cent labourers get more than Rs. 100 per day. ... It is interesting to note that nearly two-third of the casual labourers is getting a wage rate which is less than the minimum daily wage.”

The ongoing struggle for house plots centred in the Punjab’s most backward Malwa region. Ghuman et al record that “... The average wage rate is highest (Rs. 76.12 per day) in Majha, followed by Rs. 75.33 and Rs. 61.12 in Doaba and Malwa. Thus, Malwa is much behind the other two regions as far as daily average wage rate is concerned.... An inter-regional comparison, thus, shows that the proportion of labourers in the lowest wage group is highest in Malwa and lowest in Doaba. In the next higher range of wages, Majha has the highest proportion of labourers whereas Doaba and Malwa are very near to each other. Still in the next higher wage group, it is Doaba which has the highest proportion of labourers followed by Majha and Malwa. ...The relative position of labourers is better in Doaba compared to Majha and Malwa. Relatively higher out-migration of workers may be one of the plausible explanations for this.”

How do such wages look when seen in the backdrop of the needs of labourers’ families? Ghuman et al show that “Within agriculture, nearly 52 per cent labourers have family income below Rs. 1000 per month. Another 38.57 per cent have between Rs. 1000-1500 as family earnings per month. Only 9.52 per cent labourers have family earnings above Rs. 1500 per month. Clearly, majority of labourers in agriculture end up with a very low level of family income. It is very significant to note that 94.76 per cent labourers’ monthly wages are below Rs. 960 per month. ... another significant revelation (is) that 27.13 per cent labourers’ families have an annual income below Rs. 12000, which is very low by any standards. Per day family income of such labourers comes out to be Rs. 32.88. For a family of five persons it comes out to be Rs. 6.59 per day. This is far below Rs. 12 a day. As per a recent National Report (Govt. of India, 2007), 77 per cent of Indian population is below Rs. 12 a day. This proportion becomes all the more significant if we add labourers’ families whose annual earnings range between Rs. 12000 to Rs. 18000. Together, nearly 68 per cent labourer families end up with family earnings up to Rs. 18000 per annum. This means 68 per cent labourer families have less than Rs. 10 per capita per day. This is very disappointing situation in a prosperous state like Punjab.”

Continued Dependency and Unfreedom

‘Caste and Untouchability in Rural Punjab,’ Surinder S Jodhka, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 37, No. 19 (May 11-17, 2002), pp. 1813-1823, based on another study of rural Punjab, notes that semi-feudal relations continue to persist in the Malwa region, though they have declined in other parts of Punjab.

The article observes, “A large majority of dalits in Punjab have traditionally been employed in agriculture, mostly as labourers. Some of them also worked on a long-term basis with the landowning jats. Though the traditional variety of attached labour, such as 'sajhis' and 'siris' have given way to more formalised relations, working on long-term basis with farmers still leads to relations of dependency and unfreedom. Dalits obviously did not like getting into such arrangements. In the Doaba region where dalit mobility has been more pronounced than elsewhere in the state, very few of them worked as attached labourers. Of the 13 villages studied from Doaba, none of the dalits worked as attached labourer in as many as eight villages. However, Malwa still had many who were working as attached labourers. Of the 26 villages studied, 21 had dalits working as attached labourers (ranging from 5 to 50 in each village). However, on the whole the process of occupational diversification was quite pronounced everywhere. Wherever they could afford to do so, dalits had stopped working regularly on land under the dominant caste farmers. In the villages of Doaba, for example, we were frequently told that much of the labour work is done by migrants and that the local dalits did not want to work on land. They only performed seasonal labour and rest of the year preferred going to work in the town or bringing work home.”

Ghuman et al also bear witness to the fact that the Malwa region displays more evidence of “attached labour” than other regions.

Debt Trap

It isn’t only farmers who are caught in a debt trap. Consider the facts put forward by Ghuman et al:

“... As a result of low wages and low family earnings, a little more than 70 per cent of casual labourers are under loan, ranging from Rs. 1000 to above Rs. 20,000. ... majority of the labourers (are) under loan between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 20,000 across the three regions. A simple comparison of the extent of loan and family income highlights that 58 per cent labourers are under loan up to Rs. 20,000 whereas 68 per cent families have annual earnings loess than Rs. 18,000. This means the extent of loan is higher than their annual earnings. This is a situation like debt-trap as their annual income is lower than their debt stock. More so, this loan is largely for unproductive purposes. Similar results have been brought out by a report compiled by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NEUS). The Commission’s Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihood in the Unorganized Sector (2007), highlights that 84 per cent small and marginal farmers in India are caught in debt trap as they spent more than they earned. At the top of it these workers do not have any social security cover.”

We have already seen that dalit labourers prefer, if possible, to avoid working long-term for a landed employer. But Ghuman et al find that the debt trap ties even those labourers working in non-agricultural sector, to the zamindar, especially in Malwa: “Within agriculture, the most important source of loan is zamindars (landlords) as nearly 63 per cent labourers take loan from them. Kariana shops (provision stores) give goods on short term credit to labourers. The proportion of such labourers is 34 per cent. A very small proportion of labourers (3.19 per cent) take loan from relatives. It is, thus, clear that the labourers entirely depend on non-institutional source of loan. The fact of the matter is that these labourers are either not aware of institutional sources of loan or do not have any access to such sources.

It is very interesting to note that 72.57 per cent labourers, from the non-agricultural sector, too, take loan from the zamindars. Only about 23 per cent labourers in this sector take loan (in the form of goods on credit) from kariana shops. Similarly, a little more than three-fourth labourers, working partly in agriculture and partly in non-agricultural activities, depend on zamindars for loan....a very sizeable majority (70 per cent) of casual labourers, not attached to zamindars but working across the sectors, depend on zamindars for loan.... Region-wise, Malwa ranks at number one as far as the proportion of labourers is concerned in loan from zamindars (78.39%).”

A leaflet issued by the RYA in Chandigarh elaborates on the labourers’ debt trap:

“Malwa is becoming hub of Cancer caused due to contaminated land water. Even students of Govt. schools are forced to drink land water as the panchayati taps are removed. The duty to provide clean drinking water, earlier given to Panchayats, has now been privatised. The security deposit for getting a tap is Rs. 2000-2500 and monthly bill is extra. The labourers are left with 2 options: either drink contaminated land water and get cancer or take loans from rich to get water taps....Loans are not easy to get as labourers do not have any property to keep as security. So the only option left is to approach the non-institutional mortgagers who charge 4-5 times more interest than banks. Once the loan is taken, the women of labourers’ families are forced to do household jobs in the mortgager’s family (often, cleaning of animal waste) for years in lieu of the interest of loan as long as the principal amount is not paid off.”

Ghuman et al note that “A large majority of labourers (54.49 per cent) use the loan to meet their obligations towards household consumption expenditure...It is important too...that a very high proportion of labourers use loan for meeting household consumption needs and that, too, when the cost of loan is very high. Taking the purchase of live stock as the only productive use of loan, 96.48 per cent labourers make unproductive use of loan. Such a proportion is highest (99.33 per cent) in Majha followed by 95.60 per cent in Malwa and 94.44 per cent in Doaba regions, respectively. ... Enormously high proportion of labourers in the unproductive use of loan is a serious phenomenon. ... (This means that) they will not be able to come out of this trap unless serious measures are taken at the policy level.”


Ghuman et al note that “Local labour prefers its own house; no matter it is kacha or semi-pacca.” Labourers, according to their report, generally tend to have their own house.

Surinder S Jodhka, (EPW Vol. 37, No. 19) notes that “Providing housing to the dalits has been an important component of developmental schemes meant for the upliftment of dalits. A good number of villages in Punjab have such schemes working, under which residential quarters were built for dalits. These schemes are obviously welcomed by dalits simply for the reason that many of them find it very difficult to build houses on their own.”

Even government housing schemes, though, have tended to reproduce the caste segregation, “However, most of these housing schemes are located at a distance from the village. Since the houses under this scheme are allotted exclusively to dalits, it reinforced their segregation from the main village. Being located at a distance from the village, these settlements also lacked in certain amenities that were accessible to those living within the village. Some did not even have working electricity connections. Or, in some cases where such amenities had been provided, the back-up service was quite unsatisfactory.”

Comrades tell us that the present ‘houses’ tend to be one-room shacks, too cramped for an entire family. Often, livestock and people are all cramped into that single room. The RYA leaflet observes that “most of labourer families even have no space to build toilets and they (including women and young girls) are forced to go out in fields for answering nature’s call. The owners of fields don’t allow them and women are insulted daily over this.” When small or marginal peasants need more housing space, they often build on some part of the farm-land they own. This option is not open to the landless labourers. Therefore, the question of housing is very important to the dalit agricultural labourers – and it is tied up with issues of their dignity as well as their practical needs. The fact that successive governments have promised to introduce new housing schemes that will give house plots to this section, reflects how popular a demand this is.

As for panchayat-owned land, the administration is now claiming that the fact that the dalit rural poor have laid claim to it is a major crime. Was it not a crime when the dominant rich sections of the village routinely prevent the former from bidding for land that is allotted for them? An EPW article of some years back makes a brief reference to tensions over panchayat-land, and there is no doubt that the problem goes deeper: “Tension had been high in two villages of Sangrur district for some time over the lease of panchayat-owned land. The dominant jats had been taking the land on lease from the panchayat at cheap rates. Now dalits too wanted to be part of the bidding.” (‘Caste Tensions in Punjab: Talhan and Beyond,’ Surinder S. Jodhka and Prakash Louis, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 28 (Jul. 12-18, 2003), pp. 2923-2926).


Spirits unbroken by jail

We met with women prisoners at Ferozepur Jail. Some of the women were distressed by the thought of responsibilities – like young children or sick and dependent relatives. Youth comrades who accompanied us assured the women that in the villages, food was being cooked jointly, and the entire community was taking responsibility for the families of those in the jails. We also visited several villages of Mansa district to meet with women who had been released after around 10 days in various jails. They described how the police had added immensely to their mental anguish by refusing to inform them of the whereabouts of the arrested children. One 70-year-old man had his arm in a sling – it was broken, he said, when the police lathicharged him completely unprovoked. One woman had been hit on the head with a baton by the police. We found the villagers and women to be in remarkably high spirits, nevertheless. In one of the villages, one man came up to the gathering and spoke against the movement, saying his wife was in jail and his daughter was refusing to eat as a result. “How can the poor fight the government,” he asked. Youth comrades told people to give him a patient hearing. One teenage girl got up and told him she was the only one of her entire family left out of jail, and yet she wasn’t dispirited. Another woman spoke up too, saying, “Now we’ve been to jail, there’s nothing to fear anymore. The government has done its worst, and we must keep fighting.” One feisty old woman got up next and told the man, “Son, what’s so bad about jail? It saves ‘kanak’ (wheat), after all, since the government then feeds us. Let’s all head off to jail!”

(AIPWA Secretary Kavita Krishnan and Manisha Sethi, Assistant Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, reporting on their visit to Punjab on June 1 and 2.)

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