In a democratic and peaceful struggle which was started in 2020 and lasted more than a year, farmers as well as farm labourers of Punjab left no stone unturned in making their contribution to the best of their ability. Farmers, farm labourers, and many other working classes from most of the states of the country played their part in this struggle which became unique in the whole world. Speakers from the stages set up by the farmer and farm labourer organizations shed light on various aspects of the struggle and its objectives and promised to resolve the problems of farmers as well as agricultural labourers.

Now battle lines have been drawn between farmers and agricultural labourers in three villages in the Bathinda and Sangrur districts of Malwa for planting paddy and daily wages. Such a confrontation was also witnessed in 2020 and 2021 due to the shortage of migrant agricultural labourers in Punjab as a result of the Covid pandemic and was sensibly prevented by some progressive farmer and agricultural labour organizations. Such a confrontation was not expected after the significant contribution of the agricultural labourers to the farm struggle and the promises made by the leaders of various farmer organizations to protect the interests of agricultural labourers.

According to newspaper reports, the panchayat of Mansa Kala village in Bathinda district had read out its decision in Gurudwara Sahib according to which the rate for paddy planting has been fixed at Rs 3500 per acre, a daily wage rate of Rs 300 for male labour and Rs 250 per day for female labour, and a fine of Rs 5000 for violating this decision. Agricultural labourers who don’t accept these wage rates would be prevented from going to the landowners’ fields.

In Daska village of Sangrur district, farmers have fixed the paddy planting rate at Rs 3500 per acre and those farmers who do not abide by this decision will be fined Rs 20,000. The daily wage in this village has been fixed at Rs 350. The farm labourers of this village have decided to plant paddy at Rs 6000 per acre and the wages of the agricultural labourers have been fixed at Rs 500 per day with a fine of Rs 2000 on farm labourers who violate the above decision.

In Chahlan Patti, another village in Sangrur, the landowning farmers have fixed paddy planting at Rs 3500 per acre, with a fine of Rs 50,000 for violations. Farmers have also announced a reward of Rs 10,000 to informants who report any violation of this decision.

It is not justifiable for the landowning farmers of these three villages to make such decisions regarding the wage rates of farm labourers. It is not at all desirable to announce such decisions in Gurudwara Sahib, because Gurudwaras are common to all and prayers for the welfare of all (sarbat) are offered here. Sikhism also gives prominence to the message of “Guru ki Golak is the mouth of the poor” – understanding this message, for farmers to set a maximum wage rate for farm labourers in Gurudwara Sahib violates the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and is a shock to the impoverished agricultural labourers.

Although the fields and farmers of Punjab have fed the nation for long, paddy is not a suitable crop for the agro-climatic conditions of Punjab, due to which agricultural labourers started coming to the state from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states for planting this crop. Due to the low demand and the very low wage rates for agricultural labour in these states, a large number of migrant agricultural labourers from accepted low wages in Punjab, fatally affecting the working days and wage rates of agricultural labourers in Punjab.

The wage rates of agricultural labourers in Punjab have been determined by the demand and supply of agricultural labourers. Although there has been some increase in the wage rates over time, rising inflation has kept them from realising these wages. A number of research studies have revealed the fact that there has been no increase in the net wage rates of agricultural labourers, rather these rates have decreased in most cases. Now, the demand for labourers for paddy plantation exceeds their supply, so it is unreasonable in all respects to fix their maximum wage rates.

The oppressive socio-economic conditions and suppressed political participation of the agricultural labourers of Punjab continue to show their major problems. Various research studies conducted in Punjab have brought to light the fact that the pockets of the agricultural labourers are empty, their stomachs are hungry, ragged clothes on their bodies, and besides these labourers deprived of land are also falling prey to feudalistic thinking.

The use of herbicides and machinery in the package of ‘New Agricultural Technology’ adopted in Punjab has reduced the employment days in the agricultural sector and in particular of the agricultural labourers. Prior to the adoption of this technology, the relationship between farmers and agricultural labourers was warmer than it is now. At that time, the sanjhi/ siri agricultural labour system was prevalent in most parts of Punjab.

Sanjhi/ siri used to get a share in the agricultural production of farmers, even though at that time a saanjh/ seer was not fair under which the landowning farmer got a very large share and the sanjhi/ siri labourer got a very small share. But despite this, farmers helped them to the best of their ability during difficult times.

The commercial nature of the ‘New Agricultural Technology’ has hurt this relationship. While the use of herbicides and machinery has reduced the working days of agricultural labourers and either prevented an increase or reduced their net wage rates, now direct sowing of paddy to reduce agricultural costs and overcome the problem of groundwater depletion will further reduce their days of employment and income.

There are very few employment opportunities in Punjab in the industrial and service sectors. Due to low employment in the agricultural sector, some rural labourers are going to work in nearby towns and cities, but most of them cannot find employment, they sit in the labour squares and eat dry bread brought from home with a small cup of purchased tea.

Although 100 days employment is legally guaranteed under MGNREGA, rural labourers are facing many other problems besides getting very few days employment under MGNREGA. As a result, their net income is so low that their pockets remain empty.

Far from meeting all the basic necessities of life, these agricultural labourers have to borrow money to keep the stove burning for just two square meals a day, which takes the form of debt due to non-payment on time. Although this debt may seem small, it creates untold and unbearable problems for these landless farm labourers. Yes they have phones, but these phones are either low-priced or second hand. These phones have become a necessity for them to get connected with farmers for employment.

Such is the case with some of these labourers having scooters. Some of them also have chairs and tables or sofas in their homes, but they are also used by relatively high-income people. The clothes on the bodies of most of these agricultural labourers are worn and torn or handed down by relatively high-income people.

Although feudalism was legally abolished with the independence of the country, the feudal mentality of most of the landowning farmers of Punjab seems to be humiliating the agricultural labourers in various respects. A recent example of this is the decision to cap their wages on penalty of a hefty fine in Bathinda and Sangrur.

Measures must be taken by the Union and State Governments to overcome the various problems of Punjab’s agricultural labourers. It is important to ensure that the land acquired by the Punjab Government as a result of redemption of Panchayat lands in various villages of Punjab is given to the agricultural labourers for co-operative agriculture without taking any rent.

The days of employment under MGNREGA should be increased according to the requirements of agricultural labourers and the wage rates should be at least equal to the Minimum Wage Rates determined by the Central / State Governments.

In addition, progressive organizations of farmers and agricultural labourers should come forward as in previous years to reduce the tension between farmers and farm labourers as was witnessed during the last two years.

Dr Gian Singh is Former Professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala