Dalit Struggle for Land in Punjab

March 13, 2022

Through a collection of three articles, we explore the question of the Dalit struggle for land in Punjab – ed.

Dalit Struggle for Land in Punjab: Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee

The following is an excerpt from an article by Ish Mishra published in 2016 in Forward Press. The author summarizes the history of land ownership in Punjab and its fault lines along caste, and the emergence of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee.

The rural setup of Punjab is marked by great disparity across caste lines in ownership of resources – especially agricultural land. That is why this movement for land rights is also against casteism and caste-based oppression. In India, ruling castes have been synonymous with ruling classes.

In Punjab, landlords and big, medium and small farmers are mostly from the upper castes (mainly Jat) while Dalits are largely landless. Villages have two types of “shalmat” (common) lands – nazul and panchayati. The nazul lands are those that belonged to people who migrated to Pakistan after the Partition and were left over after allotting to those from the other side of the border who settled here.

Village panchayats control public land in the villages. The Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act 1961 reserves one-third of the public agricultural land for the SCs. According to Punjabi poet and Naujawan Bharat Sabha activist Sukhwinder Singh “Pappi”, who is associated with the movement, 56,000 acres of land has been allotted to the SCs in the state on paper while actually they possess not an inch of land. The panchayat land is auctioned off annually. Rich farmers bid for the land in the name of Dalits and hold on to the land. With education, Dalits have become aware of their rights.

Punjab has a long history of peasants’ movements. But the movement launched by Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) in many villages of Punjab’s Malwa region is different in many respects. This is a kind of caste/class struggle. On one hand are the Dalits, who have a right to one-third of the panchayat land and on the other hand are upper-caste farmers, who, in cahoots with the administration, are controlling this land through forgery.

A key feature of this struggle is its communal nature. In the villages where the Dalits have succeeded in acquiring land, they are practising collective farming under the aegis of ZPSC and through Dalit Collectives. They work the land jointly and divide the produce among themselves. Here we will try to analyze the role of Dalit Collectives against the backdrop of this movement.

Banra struggle: A new beginning 

As explained earlier, rich farmers of upper castes gain control over panchayat lands reserved for SCs through fraud and forgery, with the administration playing the abettor. In 2008, Bahal Singh, a resident of Banra village in Barnala district, brought together 250 Dalit families from the village under the banner of Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union.

They ensured that the Jat landlords and rich farmers could not find a single Dalit to acquire land on their behalf. It is here that the idea of collective farming was born. The Dalits of Banra jointly bid for 33 per cent (9 acres) of panchayat land and got it allotted in their names. This 9-acre land gave the Dalits a feeling of self-respect and dignity that they had never experienced before. The shared memories of oppression and the shared struggle tied them with a strong bond.

The land was insufficient for growing food grains, with only 10 “bissa” falling in the share of each family. Instead of following the traditional cropping pattern of paddy and wheat, they opted for the year-round cropping that involved growing fodder crops like chari and barseem. An 11-member elected committee managed production and distribution. What remained from the sale proceeds after deducting the amount they bid for the land for the next year was divided among the members.

This freed the women from having to walk miles for procuring fodder for cattle and to face humiliation at the hands of landlords. This was an economic struggle against casteist domination. The Banra experiment lasted only five years but the idea of Dalit Collectives caught the imagination of the entire Malwa region.

Shekha: The next step

Enthused by the success of the Banra Dalit Collective, members of the Punjab Students’ Union scrutinized official documents to determine the actual share of SCs in community land, and after a long struggle led by the union, Dalit families managed to acquire through joint bidding the entire land to which they were entitled. This strengthened the community-farming experiment. It was to spread this movement all over the state, to give it a strong organizational framework and to co-ordinate with other movements that ZPSC was constituted. Today, ZPSC is leading movements in hundreds of villages of Malwa.

Balad Kalan: New equations

In Balad Kalan, “Shalmat” land measured 375 acres, so Dalits were entitled to 125 acres (one-third). On 24 May 2016, police barbarically lathi-charged farmers of Balad Kalan who had blocked traffic to protest against the fraud in the auction of panchayat land by rich-farmers-administration nexus. Many protestors, including women, sustained serious injuries and scores were arrested. Two girls who were on their way to a coaching centre were also dragged through streets and beaten up mercilessly.

On 28 May, when the team of Janhastakshep visited some villages of Sangrur district, the women showed their wounds but it was evident that they were not terror-stricken. Rather, they were confident and committed to taking their struggle forward. For them, it was not merely an economic issue but a question of self-respect, of honour.

In Punjab, mechanization of agriculture and unbridled use of fertilizers has meant that grass for fodder grows only on banks of canals and boundaries of fields. Dalits did not own land and when their women went to the fields of upper-caste farmers to cut grass for cattle, they had to face insults and abuse. But now they no longer have to go through this ordeal.

Notwithstanding the 1961 Act, the Dalits of the village were deprived of their share in common land. Rich farmers grabbed it by making bids through Dalits propped up by them. Conscious of their rights and armed with the strength of communal feeling, the farmers constituted a unit of ZPSC in the village and launched a movement in April 2014.

They jointly bid for land, acquired it and started community farming. An 11-member elected committee took up the responsibility of managing production and distribution. The produce was divided among the members after providing for the money needed to bid for the land for the following year. A part of the land was set aside for growing fodder and food grains were sown in the rest.

Community farming on such a big piece of land was a challenging task but the Dalits decided to accept the challenge and were able to see its advantages. Here too, the ideas of joint ownership, joint labour and democratic distribution underpin community farming.

Pendu and Khet Mazdoor Union (1)

The landlords, who treated the Dalits with contempt, were livid. Dalits living with self-respect was absolutely unacceptable to them. Aided by the administration, they again want to grab the land reserved for the Dalits. But the Dalits are firm. They are not ready to give up their right come what may.

Tears well up in the eyes of 40-year-old Paramjit Kaur as she recalls the 2014 agitation in which she sustained injuries from the police assault and remained in a coma for weeks. But she says that the pain of the injuries was nothing before the humiliation she was subjected to by the landlords. After the success of Balad Kalan, Dalit Collectives have come up in around 20 villages of Sangrur and Barnala districts, and in many other villages, Dalits are moving in that direction.

Dalit Mahapanchayat

In April 2015, ahead of the auction of panchayat land in May, ZPSC held a Dalit Mahapanchayat at Bhawanigarh that was attended by thousands of Dalits from over 100 villages of the five districts of the Malwa region. The panchayat discussed how to strengthen Dalit Collectives where they were already in existence and how to establish them where they weren’t. On 20 March, a Dalit panchayat was held in Grancho village. Four hundred Dalits from 102 villages were present. The Dalits of this village resolved to acquire land jointly and to farm collectively.

Matoi: Instance of women’s empowerment

Dalit struggles are underway in many villages but Matoi is important because here, girl students have launched the struggle and are leading it. Led by Sandeep Kaur, girls studying in a college in a nearby town united the Dalit families and after a long struggle managed to acquire land and bring it under collective farming.

Khedi: Mockery of social justice

In 1976, residential plots were allotted to the landless farmers of Khedi village. According to an order of the Punjab & Haryana High Court, the panchayat can take back the land if the beneficiary hasn’t built their house on it within three years of allotment. But till four years ago, the Dalits had no inkling of this order. When the panchayat tried to take back their land, they began a sit-in led by ZPSC.

They encircled their land with red flags and stayed put ignoring the threats of the landlords and atrocities of the police. Now, they are not doing collective farming but are running a collective kitchen. They are braving rain and inclement weather but are not ready to give up their possession of the land. The rich farmers, the police and administration want to take back their land by hook or by crook but the Dalits are determined not to give up till their last breath.

Having working the lands of upper-caste farmers for generations, now becoming the owner of a piece of land is a dream come true for most of them. A 54-year-old activist of ZPSC fondly recalled how, two years ago, he used spade in “my own field”. He was one of the 700-800 farmers who had taken part in the 2014 struggle. At that time, the police had displayed the same barbarity. He had sustained serious injuries and had to undergo a complicated surgery.

“I was in great pain but the happiness of owning a field numbed the pain to the extent that I could not feel it,” he says. Filing false cases against leading activists of any movement is an old strategy of governments. But the Dalits of Punjab no longer fear frame-ups. Throughout the movement, the role of the police and administration has been anti-Dalit.

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2nd article:

How Punjab’s Dalits are Fighting For Their Rights Over Common Land

By Manu Modgil. This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, in August 2019.

Sangrur, Punjab: “Our struggle is not just about money. It’s about owning a farm where we can go without fear,” said Paramjit Kaur, standing at the door of her kitchen, rolling a dough ball to make chapatis. “Now, our daughters can go alone to harvest fodder at any time.”

Paramjit Kaur was talking about the 15.5 acres of common land she is jointly tending with 200 other Dalit families of the village, earning 2.5 quintal wheat and Rs 1,200 annual profit per household.

At her home in Bhattiwal Kalan village of Sangrur district in Punjab, a green awning in the courtyard partly blocked the harsh summer sun. Around 50 metres away stood the family’s only reliable source of income–a cart full of cosmetics, small household items and plastic toys. Paramjit Kaur’s husband, Major Singh, takes this mobile shop to neighbouring villages, earning around Rs 500 from daily sales. Her son recently joined a private firm in Sangrur as laboratory assistant, relieving her of a job as a farm labourer.

The family are among the several thousand Dalits participating in a land rights movement sweeping across 70 villages of southern Punjab, upsetting the deeply-entrenched power equations between upper-caste farmers and scheduled caste (SC) labourers.

The campaign also aims to protect village commons from encroachment, ensure food security and uphold women’s safety. This is why the likes of Paramjit Kaur are at the forefront of this movement.

Dalit women of Niyamatpur village in Punjab’s Sangrur district who fought for rights to the reserved common land. A movement for Dalit land rights is challenging traditional power equations as it fights to ensure food security and uphold women’s safety.

Land ownership and rights

In Punjab, upper castes, mostly Jat Sikhs, dominate the farming landscape. Only 3.5% of private farm land belongs to Dalits who make up 32% of the population, according to the Agriculture Census of 2015-16. The national average is 8.6% of farm land for 16.6% of Dalits.

Source: Agriculture Census 2015-16

Punjab has the maximum proportion (5.28%) of big farmers owning more than 10 hectares of land among all non-mountainous states of India. The national average is 0.57%, according to the Agriculture Census 2015-16.

Land consolidation is expected to grow further as modern, capital-intensive farming in the state benefits big farmers due to the economies of scale.

In the past, the only major land rights movement in Punjab was the Muzara Movement (1930-53), in which tenant farmers demanded the abolition of biswedari–a system in which landlords owned vast swathes of land–in the princely state of Patiala and East Punjab States’ Union (PEPSU). The agitation had led to violence against the protesting tenant farmers.

The Muzara Movement, however, did not include Dalits.

In 1961, the state passed the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, reserving 33% of agricultural village common land for SCs, who could get an annual lease through bidding (rules under the statute were framed in 1964). The implementation, however, was indifferent.

“Upper-caste farmers continued to cultivate this land by sponsoring proxy candidates from the reserved category, depriving the community of this right,” said Sucha Singh Gill of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Chandigarh. “Dalits were also not vocal enough to challenge this arrangement.”

“Even though we knew that the land is ours, we could not claim it,” said Avtar Singh, 65, a resident of Niyamatpur village of Sangrur district, who spent most of his life working on lands of big farmers. “Many of us were unlettered, unorganised and scared of going against the landlords who were our only source of income, food and fodder,” he told IndiaSpend.

Avtar Singh of Niyamatpur village in Sangrur district of Punjab with a cart full of green fodder from the village common land. Avtar Singh spent most of his life working on lands of big farmers. Today, he jointly tills village common land along with other landless.

In 2009, the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC, or ‘land rights struggle committee’), an informal left-wing organisation, decided to mobilise Dalits through village-level committees. The ZPSC favours collective bidding and cultivation of the reserved common lands by all Dalits in a village.

“Educated youth and women were most willing to challenge the status quo,” said Gurmukh Singh, Sangrur district secretary of ZPSC. “They realised that owning a piece of land would bring prestige and cut through the dominance of the upper castes.”

This transformation in Dalit assertiveness is, however, a work of decades, said Ronki Ram, professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Starting from before Independence, political consciousness emerged through the work of B R Ambedkar and Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram, born in Punjab’s Rupnagar district, and religious consolidation through the Ad Dharm (Ravidasia). More recently, the most concerted and powerful of these politico-religious sects where Dalits have congregated has been the Dera Sacha Sauda. Such deras have given Dalits the confidence to organise for a movement for land rights, Ronki Ram said.

“The Green Revolution has reduced interdependence of farmers and labourers due to increased farm mechanisation. Dalits started going to nearby towns for work,” said Gian Singh, former professor of economics at Punjabi University, Patiala. For those still involved in farm work, however, dependence persists. Around 68% of agricultural labourers get loans from big farmers, mostly at high interest rates, according to a 2017 study, ‘Indebtedness among farmers and agricultural labourers in rural Punjab’.

Blood on Land

Dalits are waging similar battles to lay claim to promised lands across India, as IndiaSpend reported on June 7, 2019. Across 13 Indian states, there were 31 conflicts involving 92,000 Dalits fighting to claim land, according to Land Conflict Watch, a network of researchers that maps and collects data on land conflicts in India.

Assertion of land rights often leads to grave violence in Punjab where popular culture glamourises gun toting to gain possession of land.

With the widespread use of proxies of Jat Sikh farmers, Dalits have disrupted auctions in several villages over the last 10 years, threatening proxy candidates and even stopping influential farmers from tilling the reserved lands.

Such acts have often resulted in violent repercussions as in Jhaloor village, where 72-year-old Gurdev Kaur was killed and several other protesters grievously injured in a brutal attack by a group of big farmers and their supporters on October 5, 2016. The attackers are currently facing trial in court.

Ballad Kalan, a village with the largest common lands in the region–121 acres as per land records reviewed by IndiaSpend–also endured a cycle of clashes. A few upper-caste farmers had been cultivating the common land for a long time. “In 2014, the proxies for landlords were again bidding for the reserved land at very high rates. We tried to stall the auction but police lathi-charged and threw us into waiting vans,” recalled 63-year-old Harmer Kaur, who braved many blows. “Though women were released later, 41 of our men were kept behind bars for 59 days on several charges.”

The women were not cowed. They uprooted paddy saplings from a plot of reserved land allotted to a proxy of one of the Jat farmers, forcing the state administration and village panchayat to re-auction the land within six months. This was the first time that Dalits won the lease as a collective in Ballad Kalan. The cycle of protests and arrests continued for a couple of years before the current peace, fragile as it is, was achieved.

“It was a stormy and painful journey but also the most rewarding. We would travel to surrounding villages to garner support and to also spread the movement,” said Manpreet Kaur, 48, a short, stout woman whose house became the war room of ZPSC during the struggle. “We got substantial support from many small farmers in our village. Only a few big landlords eyeing the common land were against us.”

The then District Development Panchayat Officer of Sangrur, Joginder Kumar, refused to comment on the incidents and told IndiaSpend that the matter had been resolved amicably during his tenure. Another senior officer requesting anonymity, however, termed ZPSC’s methods as coercive. “The open auctions held earlier were transparent but the leaders provoked people to protest against the system,” he told IndiaSpend. “Only a few have benefited from the new setup.”

Gill of CRRID disagreed: “The movement has definitely improved access to food and fodder for Dalit families besides enhancing self esteem of women.”

A prominent farm union leader in Punjab claimed that ZPSC has created enmity between farmers and farm workers. “The movement is led by former Naxalites who are still looking for some sort of revolution by dividing the society,” he said, “History shows that Dalits can’t till the land because they lack expertise.”

Such opinions are older than the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act of 1961, and were voiced during debates in the state legislative assembly on reserving 33% common land for Dalits, said Jatinder Singh, assistant professor of political science at Punjabi University, Patiala.

“Many MLAs opposed the new law claiming that this will impact agricultural production in the state since Dalits are incapable of farming,” Singh told IndiaSpend. “This thinking flies in the face of the fact that they have been farm workers for generations. The only missing attribute was confidence because of past oppressions. Now, they have gained that as well.”

So shall they reap

In 2014, each Dalit family of Ballad Kallan contributed Rs 11,000 for the lease money, the fruits of which they are still enjoying. Today, every family earns on average Rs 30,000 annually, including five quintal wheat grains, from the land, villagers told IndiaSpend. Seven quintal of dry fodder is also allocated to every household. The rest of the money from the 121-acre community land is spent on paying the annual lease of Rs 21,500 per acre besides labour and other input costs.

Remembering the time she had to walk miles to fetch a load of green fodder from the fringes of Jat-owned farms, Harmer Kaur is thankful that the common land is now with the Dalits. “Sometimes the land owner would chase us or make indecent comments,” she recalled.

Sexual exploitation is one of the most critical threats for women labourers, most of whom are Dalits, found a recent study, ‘Socio Economic Conditions and Political Participation of Rural Women Labourers in Punjab’. “More than 70% respondents kept quiet when asked about their experiences related to sexual exploitation. The reality can be inferred from this,” said lead researcher Gian Singh, the former economics professor from Punjabi University. “The social stigma related to the issue forces many to keep mum.”

Things have changed since the movement, Harmer Kaur said: “Now, we don’t need to worry much about safety. We can work on our own community land for a daily wage and also buy green fodder from there.”

Future of land rights

From questioning power, the landless are now trying to gain political power. Thirty of the ZPSC members contested panchayat elections held in December 2018 as independent candidates. At Tolewal village, where they won the seat of sarpanch and two panchayat members, the movement is moving to the next level.

On June 6, 2019, the gram sabha of Tolewal passed a resolution to grant a 33-year lease for the reserved village common land to Dalit families. They disrupted subsequent attempts to hold bidding for the land, resulting in clashes on July 1 that left 15 people injured.

“The aim of 33-year lease is to avoid the annual cycle of protests and uncertainty which takes a toll on our children,” said Harwant Kaur, one of the women leaders of the village. “The long-term lease will also help protect the land from encroachments.”

This 33-year lease has been controversial.

“Long-term lease of common land is allowed only for development projects by government or private firms,” said Malerkotla Block Development Officer Amandeep Kaur, adding that a 33-year lease could not be granted for farming.

“The Dalits aligned to ZPSC are seeking long-term lease on low rate which means village panchayat will suffer loss in revenue,” former sarpanch Bir Singh told IndiaSpend. “When there is no provision to grant 33-year lease, how can this be done? When refused, they resort to violence.”

In response, Gurmukh Singh, district secretary of ZPSC, asked: “If cow sheds can be given on long-term lease, I don’t see a reason why Dalits can’t get the land reserved for them for 33 years. Are they worse than cows?”

The Dalits of Balad Kalan are also aiming for a 33-year lease, fearing that a proposed industrial park in the region would subsume their common lands. “The proposal includes 40 hectares of village common land but it requires approval of the panchayat that we would never let happen,” said Manpreet Kaur.

The movement has greater goals to achieve, said Gurmukh Singh of ZPSC. “The possession of common land has instilled confidence among Dalits but it can’t be their main source of livelihood,” he said. “The real change will come with proper implementation of land ceiling law and redistribution of private land. Only then the landless will gain equal status.”

Under the Punjab Land Reforms Act, 1972, a family unit (husband, wife and children) cannot own more than 17.5 acres of fertile agricultural land that has access to good irrigation facilities. However, a family can hold up to 32 acres if the land is barren and without irrigation facilities.

For the likes of Paramjit Kaur, however, the fight is for dignity, not profit.

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Artificial Suppression of Agricultural Wages by Land-owning Jats During the Time of Covid-19

This report by Arjun Sharma of 101 Reporters, written in July 2020 and entitled “Punjab Gurdwara Sermons against Dal’s are Illegal” , shows the artificial suppression of wages of Dalit agricultural laborers by land-owning Jats in the aftermath of Covid-19, when migrant labor from Bihar was unavailable.

Ludhiana: The announcement was made from the loudspeaker of a gurdwara in south Punjab: “The panchayat has fixed the rate of paddy sowing at Rs 3,200 (per acre) and that of basmati at Rs 3,500. If someone pays more, he will have to bear a fine of Rs 50,000 as decided by the panchayat.” 

This summer in Punjab’s paddy plantation season, which stretches from 10 June until the first week of July, the state’s traditional caste fault lines were on obvious display. Panchayats sermons echoed from loudspeakers of gurdwaras warning upper-caste Jat Sikh landowners to pay only a fixed rate to mostly Dalit landless agricultural labourers. 

video where a panchayat member communicated the diktat issued by the village administration went viral in early June. “The daily wage rate has been fixed at Rs 300 while the half-day labour charges will be Rs 200. No meals will be served to labourers,” the man in the video said, adding that employers would not be responsible for any accidents that might occur on the field.

Despite a labour shortage during the paddy season after migrant workers, mostly from Bihar, fled the state to return to their homes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the wages of local Dalit workers were artificially held down by panchayats across the state. 

Villages reported increased instances of caste discrimination such as refusing to serve Dalit workers food and restrictions on travelling for work until paddy sowing in their own village had been completed.

Article 17 of the Indian constitution states that the practise of untouchability in any form is forbidden. “The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. The Constitution details the punishment for such offences in The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

One of the crimes under section 3 of the Act includes intentionally insulting or intimidating “with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view”. As per the act, the crime is punishable with imprisonment anywhere between six months to five years and a fine.

In Ghanauri Khurd village in Sangrur district of Punjab, 125 km east of capital Chandigarh, the panchayat passed a resolution on 5 May to ask labourers (mostly Dalit Sikhs) to bring their own food and utensils. The panchayat resolved that the small number of migrant labourers who had stayed back would be provided 5 kg of raw rice after they planted paddy in one acre of land, but no food would be served to them.

In previous years, not only have landowners ensured that food was served to migrant workers, they also provided accommodation and liquor. These workers were paid between Rs 2,700-3,500 per acre or more, depending upon the area. Rates depend on the size of the land and location in the state. Agricultural workers get more money in Ludhiana as compared to Barnala or other backward districts of the state.

Balwant (name changed), a Dalit Sikh resident, who was clad in a faded yellow T-shirt and a checked pajamas which he rolled up while working on the farm, told Article 14 that while local labourers were promised a fair daily wage rate of Rs 300, he was disheartened by the discrimination. His face was sunburned from hours working in the fields for eight years. Like all the others, he worked barefoot, a loose turban protecting his head from the sun. 

Panchayat Causing The Rift

The panic in the farming community was triggered when local farmers in parts of Bathinda, Amritsar and Ludhiana said they paid Rs 4,000-4,500 per acre for paddy plantation at the start of the season. Panchayats met and came up with the solution of a fixed rate.

Paddy is cultivated on nearly 26 lakh hectare of land in Punjab. Dalits constitute 32% of the total population. The majority are agricultural labourers or daily wage workers. Dalit Sikhs comprise 60% of the state’s total SC population.

“Farmers in villages and local labourers want to live peacefully, but the panchayats are creating a rift between the two groups,” said Lakhveer Singh, state secretary of Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union, a rights organization for Dalit labourers. 

“By asking the Dalit labourers to bring their own utensils for food or not allowing them to travel to other villages for work, landowners are violating the rights of labourers who are without any work owing to the coronavirus pandemic for past three months.”

The warning by panchayats against any violation of their resolution was an indication of “deep-rooted hatred against Dalits that has now come out openly”, he said.

On 11 June, a delegation of Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union met Gobind Singh Longowal, chief of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), a Sikh body that manages gurudwaras in many states, to discuss the discrimination.

Panchayats, especially in Sangrur and Barnala districts of the state, were not only discriminating against Dalit labour but were also imposing restrictions on their movement until the paddy plantation in their own villages had been completed. According to the diktats issued by the Sangrur panchayat (a copy is available with Article 14), labourers could not move to other villages until the paddy sowing in their own village was over.

Ram Saroop Sharma, Sarpanch of Gurusar village in Bathinda district, where a similar resolution had been passed, said the state was facing a labour shortage due to which the charges had skyrocketed. To counter this issue, farmers had approached panchayats to keep a check on the high labour charges.

Many farmers are already buried under the burden of loans and it has become difficult for them to pay high labour charges, said Sharma.

Gian Singh, a professor at the Economics department of Punjabi University, said labour charges in Punjab are determined by demand and supply but in this exceptional year, when the supply of labour fell dramatically, the farmer vs rural labour issue became a upper caste vs Dalit tussle.

“It is important to understand that the local labourers were sitting idle for the past three months and didn’t earn anything and it was their right to get this amount,” said Singh. “However, on the other hand, the financial condition of small farmers is also not strong that they can pay increased labour charges.”

Narbhinder Singh, the District Development and Panchayat Officer, said no such case has thus far come to their notice. He said it was unconstitutional to pass resolutions fixing labour charges or discriminating against domestic labour.

The discrimination was discussed at a meeting by Dalit workers in Mehlan village in Punjab.

Widespread Phenomena

Cases of discrimination were also reported in Moga and Mansa districts in Punjab, but the state government did not act against panchayat members.

Dalit rights activist Mukesh Malaud, the president of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, said Dalit labourers from Patiala, Moga, Bathinda, Sangrur and Barnala had told him they were being discriminated against by the panchayats.

“There are many villages where oral resolutions have been passed and announced from gurdwaras,” said Malaud. “ These kinds of resolutions by panchayats have not even come to the notice of anyone. Different villages are fixing different labourer charges for the domestic labourers, but the consent of these Dalit workers hasn’t been sought.”

Dalit labourers had held meetings in villages such as Khadial and Mehlan in Sangrur district. “How can a panchayat fix labour charges?” asked Satwinder Kaur, a Dalit labourer who attended the meeting in Mehlan. “While they happily pay a handsome amount along with food to the labourers from other states, what is the problem in offering that to us as well?”