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Covid-19: Labour Crisis Pulls Apart Rural Society of Punjab

As migrants leave the state, panchayats backed by the landed gentry are forcibly renegotiating lower wages, which is fomenting social conflict.
Punjab Economy

Image Used for Representational Purpose Only

In the villages of Punjab, the labour crisis caused by the Novel Coronavirus pandemic is now leading to growing incidents of nepotism and bias. The prominent farmers and landlords in the villages are taking advantage of the crisis to engineer splits between social groups and communities. So far, it is estimated that about 11 lakh labourers are likely to migrate out of Punjab to their respective states. About 6 lakh of them are from only one region, Ludhiana. This year, the usual inflow of seasonal temporary labourers into Punjab around Vaisakhi also did not take place due to the lockdown. This paddy season, the farmers of Punjab remained dependent on regional labourers.

In these conditions, at the behest of the rich farmers, village panchayats have started getting proposals cleared to fix the wages of workers. These proposals require that a labourer from one village cannot go to any other village to earn a living. Threats are being issued to boycott those workers and peasants who do not accept these proposals and to impose large fines on them. It is not that there is silent acquiescence to the new “rules”. Within the ranks of the labourers has started a counter-mobilisation against them. 

The bottomline is that farmers and landlords are concerned that local labourers will start raising their per-acre work rates due to the current rush of migrant workers out of the state. Already, farmers who had taken land on contract basis have started retreating from their agreements. Due to this, the interests of different segments of farmers have started to clash and groups are starting to harbour grudges against one another. Farmer-labour organisations, this matter is being taken very seriously for they do not want to see this rift develop into a crisis.

Cases of such impositions by panchayats began in the Gidderbaha block of district Muktsar, but now the atmosphere of distrust has started to spread to the entire Malwa region. The panchayat in village Mahuana of Malout tehsil has fixed the land contract rates in the village. The panchayat of village Jida of district Bathinda has fixed the labour rate at between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 3,200 per acre. The worst part is that those workers who who do not comply will have to pay a fine of Rs. 10,000. The village Gurusar Bhagata of Bathinda has fixed the rate at Rs. 3,000 per acre for planting paddy. Similarly, Ranike village of district Moga has fixed the contract rate. In Bhani Bagha village of district Mansa, a proposal has been passed that the contract has to be paid in two instalments, whereas earlier it used to be in one instalment. The rate of wages in this village has been fixed at Rs. 3,200. Mutual bitterness has started growing in dozens of villages in district Barnala. The panchayat of village Cheema of the same district has set a fine of 1 lakh for those who do not follow the rule.

Earlier, these rates varied from Rs. 3,200-Rs. 3,500 per acre, depending on the region. For example, in Ludhiana and around the rates began at Rs. 3,200, while in the Barnala area they could go up to Rs. 3,500. Now the rates have not only been fixed at Rs. 200-300 lower payments per acre—a substantial decline for the workers—but the flexibility to negotiate rates and go to newer regions where better prices were being paid has also been taken away. On the whole, this is why it is the workers who are bearing the brunt of the lockdown-induced crisis. 

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), Patiala, has organised a district-level meeting in village Gajjumajra and asked farmers and labourers to exercise mutual restraint. Manjit Singh Niall, the district head of the union, has said that the labour crisis is short-lived, but there is a fear of deepening the conflict between landlords and labourers, which is a dangerous signal for the future. The state head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Revolutionary), Surjit Singh Phool and its general secretary Baldev Singh Zeera have demanded that the government arrange machines for transplanting paddy through the cooperatives. He said that he will not allow the self-proclaimed “chowdharis” or leaders of the villages to walk all over the interests of labourers.

The crisis has not yet taken a hold in the sugarcane belt of the Doaba region, but farmer-worker leaders say that this area may also be affected in the coming days. The rumour mill has been grinding away, raising the temperature in the Malwa region. In Jethuke, a village in the fertile Malwa plain, rumours got two groups of peasants and labourers into a fight. The trigger was similar anti-worker proposals that were passed in two villages of the same area, Aspal Kalan and Jhalur. Similar reports are also being received from the villages Ladbanjara and Kauhria in district Sangrur. 

Legal experts say that such resolutions passed by panchayats are illegal. They say that the pandemic, the lockdown and the exodus of workers may be a short-term crisis, but such resolutions will end up strengthening the caste wall between farmers and workers, which will have a longer shelf life and disastrous consequences.

Satwant Singh, a farmer from district Ludhiana, says, “Last year, I had given my land on contract for Rs. 50,000 per acre, but now it seems that if I can give it out for Rs. 45,000, I will be thankful.” On the other hand, Jhanda Singh, a farm labourer from village Halwara in Ludhiana, says, “Wealthy farmers are passing these proposal through the panchayats and booting out all concerns about the livelihood of the poor. Governments should help us in this matter, otherwise our families will die of starvation.”

According to rough estimates, there are about 1.5 million (15 lakh) agricultural labourers in the entire state of Punjab. State general secretary of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, Lachhman Singh Sewawala, says that they are neither in favour of pressurising workers nor of the black market. “The social crisis that has emerged due to the labour crisis needs to be resolved with restraint,” he says. The interests of both sides are common and their difficulties are shared too. He says that both sides should understand the tricks of the self-proclaimed chowdharis of their villages. 

The left leader Comrade Sukhdarshan Singh Nutt says, “When the panchayats have never passed any proposal regarding the minimum wage, then they also have no right to decide the maximum rate of wages.”  The rate of wages are already being determined according to the principle of economic demand and fulfilment, he points out. That is, if the work is more and the workers are less, then the wage rate increases. In the same way if the work is less and the workers are more, then the wage rate goes down. “Farmers call labourers from far-off places every year for planting paddy. At that time the panchayats did not say anything, so now when the labourers are going to other villages to earn four paise, then these panchayats have started passing proposals which are illegal,” Nutt says.

Due to the Covid-19 epidemic, news is continuously coming from the villages of Punjab which shows that the mutual goodwill among the people has already broken down. In Punjab, when granthi Baldev Singh of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar died of Covid-19, a section of Punjabis blamed the diaspora for having spread the disease. Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) were treated badly in many Punjab villages. A month prior to this death, people had started to guard their villages against outsiders and that is when reports of bad blood among people had started to pour in. The people of the villages had started complaining that the youth, ostensibly standing on guard, had made their check-points dens of impunity rather than security.

Besides, when in the name of the Coronavirus epidemic the Muslims as a community were deliberately maligned across the country, the price had to be paid to the Gurjars of the Talwara tehsil of Hoshiarpur district. Here, Hindu influence combined with BJP influence to make their life difficult. In the wake of rumours spreading on social media, people of the villages had stopped buying milk from the Gurjar Muslims. As the cases of Covid-19 in Punjab increased, especially after a batch of pilgrims returned in the first week of May from Hazur Saheb, even they were were boycotted in many villages. 

On these unwelcome developments, Prof Bawa Singh, a renowned sociologist from Punjab, says, “Cracks in the social ties among the people in villages during the Covid-19 epidemic are due to their lack of awareness and the inefficiency of governments, but the present labour crisis in the villages, which is breaking into nepotism, is even more dangerous. People should understand that the epidemic and labour crisis are a matter of time, while they have to live together for their whole lives.” 

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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