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How Dalits Became Part of Farmers’ Movement in Punjab

Farmers from marginalised communities in Punjab believe that they will be the worst sufferers of the newly enacted laws which seeks to facilitate contract and large farm based agriculture.
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Holding a flex with images of Sant Ravidas and Ambedkar, Gurpreet Lalli asks his friends frequently to click photos which he is saving for future as memorabilia of his participation in the historic farmers’ movement.

Lalli, along with his contingent from Sat Guru Ravidas Dharm Samaj, Ludhiana, is camping at Delhi’s Singhu border demanding the repeal of the recently enacted three farm laws and the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill, which the farmers’ organisations are referring as the nail in the coffin of Indian agriculture.

Lalli, who hails from Ravidassia caste (dalit) in Punjab, explained that the laws are a big blow to the advancement of the marginalised communities which they achieved after decades of struggle. He told NewsClick, “Most of the dalit communities were traditionally landless. It was our long and painstaking struggle through which we were allotted patta land in our panchayats. However, the land is barely enough to get some returns. As the laws appear to facilitate contract and large farm-based agriculture, it will be people like us who will be the most affected.”

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He added, “The second thing many people are missing out is the dislocation of workers who hail from dalit communities from the APMC markets once they are dismantled. So it is a double blow for us who have started living our lives with dignity and respect.” 

With teary eyes, he went on to say, “We do not face discrimination now because we are earning well today. I am wearing German shoes, Canadian shirt and Italian jacket because our ancestors struggled for us. It’s a matter of our life now. We cannot abandon the struggle.”

Talking about the presence of social discrimination, he said, “We do not face discrimination as explicit as in other states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but I think it’s more concealed now. For example, the school administration divides the students in houses based on different colours. My children are in red house. Interestingly, I, too, was in red house. Second, they now have religion and caste columns in their registers. Is this what they are teaching children at a nascent age?” 

On being asked about the rampant distrust towards the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Avtar Singh, who was standing next to Lalli, said, “We have no trust in his words. The laws are written documents, not oral. We do not want any oral assurances. We want a law on minimum support price. He did not ask any farmer or their organisations for their opinion (before passing the laws). All we want to say is that the country cannot be run like this. He is behaving like the parrot of a roadside astrologer.”

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Talking about the input costs and returns on his crop, he said, “If I were to sum up the input costs per acre, we spend Rs 35,000 cash inputs on one acre for rice whereas I sold the produce at about Rs 60,000 only. A similar return can be expected on wheat too. If government passes the law on MSP, I think we would be able to grow less water consuming crops (with less cost of inputs).”

Away from the main stage, Punjab State Electricity Board Employees Union President Avtar Singh Kainth expressed his concerns range about inflation to privatisation. Kainth told NewsClick that the members of the dalit community will be the worst sufferers if private players are allowed to hoard.

He argued, “We have been hearing about huge silos being built by Adani Agro. If corporations like these hoard essential commodities like rice, pulses, mustard or groundnut, it will be the labourers who will suffer. TheIR incomes are already depleted. How would one survive under the boots of blood thirsty corporations?”

Also read: Modi’s Ideas of Farmers, their Movement and Radicalism are Laughable’—Prof Parminder Singh

He is also concerned about rampant privatisation and its impact on the communities. “Let me cite an example from the electricity board itself. The board once employed 1,10,000 permanent employees. The strength was reduced to 40,000 employees in the name of cost cutting. The employees were either transferred to other departments or the employees took voluntary retirement service,” he said.

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“Now, we have been given fresh target of reduced strength of only 25,000 employees through restructuring. It is quite clear that no private player will reserve seats for us. New Electricity Bill seems to give new boost to privatisation and outsourcing. We have already seen the example of Chandigarh board’s privatisation now,” he added.

Commenting on the coming together of farmers’ movement and dalit movement in the state, Kainth said, “We have been struggling for our own issues. A very less percentage of our population is engaged in government sector. So, we have our own issues in form of direct recruitment, promotions, etc. Yes, the state did saw huge upsurge when Supreme Court order weakened SC ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act two years ago and frankly speaking, the general population did not support us then. But this movement is different. It has turned into a people’s movement and brought communities closer. Punjab did not haveoutrageous level of atrocities because Hinduism had very little influence here. But discrimination is there and we will fight it collectively. The movement has given us hope.”

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