Quieter but still present: Landless labourers say have much to lose

A resident of Fazilka district, Dev Singh's life trajectory, in many ways, mirrors the plight of Punjab's landless labourers, managing to eke out a living wholly dependent on those owning tracts of land.

His kurta a little crumpled, chappals worn out, eyes sunken and voice diffident, Dev Singh is not quite like the archetypal Punjabi farmer — feisty and boisterous.

A Mazhabi Sikh, categorised as Dalits, Dev Singh represents the large community of landless agricultural labourers at the capital’s doorstep, eager to make a point against the three farm laws by their quiet presence.

“Khet hi nahi bachenge toh khet mazdoor karenge kya (what will a farm labourer do if the farms cease to exist?) And if a farmer runs into losses, what will we be paid? We must be united in this fight,” he said, a sentiment echoed by many farm labourers The Indian Express spoke to.

A resident of Fazilka district, Dev Singh’s life trajectory, in many ways, mirrors the plight of Punjab’s landless labourers, managing to eke out a living wholly dependent on those owning tracts of land.

“When I had started out, we used to be paid Rs 3 per hour. Today, we are paid about Rs 300 per day, and we put in at least 12 hours of work,” said the 65-year-old father of two sons, who also work as farm labourers.

Those who have achieved a degree of prosperity cannot underplay the contribution of these labourers, mostly Dalits, in Punjab’s annual bountiful harvest, be it wheat or paddy.

“They sow, harvest, rear livestock and carry out all other essential activities in a farmland and a farmer’s family. Landed farmers like us are heavily dependent on them,” said Harvinder Singh, whose family owns 22 acres of land.

As per the Punjab Village Common Lands Act, 1961, Dalits have ownership rights over one-third of common land or panchayat land.

“However, the Act has not been implemented in large parts of Punjab, except pockets in Sangrur district. There is a lot of resistance, and in many cases the upper caste landlords make bids on behalf of the Dalits and till the land themselves,” said Lachhman Singh Sewewala, state general secretary of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union.

Along the Rohtak highway, where a sea of tractors from the state’s Malwa region stretch into miles, there are also landless families who have turned up to “assist” their employers, essentially the landed peasantry.

Taza Begum, who runs a family of four by working as a farm labourer, is also at the protest. A resident of Barala district, Begum’s husband lost the function of his legs 14 years ago. Her first husband died in an accident.

“We have come here to assist them. They stand by us in our times of need; whenever we encounter any medical emergency or need advance for marriage,” Begum said. Most labourers do not have the savings to meet exigencies and depend entirely on the benevolence of landlords.

However, benevolence is as much the truth as unbridled exploitation. Begum’s husband Tota Kha worked for a zamindar for over 32 years before he became paralysed. “A family for which I toiled for over three decades threw me out. Even my past dues were not cleared,” said Kha. The family stays in a one-room hutment.

At the protests, there are farmers whose produce ensures their subsistence. “I own one-acre land. There is no question of selling produce in my case. Our hut is also on the same parcel of land,” said Kulwinder Singh from Sangur, father of a 9-year-old, who runs a milk trade to support his family. His brother runs a combined harvester on someone else’s land.

Apart from the fear concerning shrinking of farmlands and agriculture turning into a loss-making enterprise, labourers also fear that the abolition of cap on stock limits by traders will lead to hoarding by corporates and inflation.

Randeep Madokke, a Punjab-based filmmaker who has documented the plight of the landless in the state, said a large number of the landless are actively participating in the protests happening within Punjab.

“Most of them cannot afford to spend even a day without earning. So they are taking part in protests in and around their sources of livelihood. It is a fact that Dalits come into conflict with the landed in Punjab over land, which often turns violent or leads to social boycotts. Over the years, unions have stood up for the cause of Dalits, and they are also realising the value of unity, which also explains their presence at the protests,” said Madokke, who was also born into a landless family.

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