Promised land

Print edition : July 17, 2009
in Mansa

A family of agricultural workers making jaggery for a landlord in Kotdharmu village in Mansa district. Workers like them need landlords support in every area of life.-AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA

AN uneasy calm envelops the dusty roads and recently harvested fields of Khiala village in Mansa district of Punjab. The village looks abandoned except for a few eager eyes scanning the only vehicle moving around on a sunny afternoon. As this correspondent reaches the Dalit-dominated western side of the village, across the plush bungalows of the landed gentry on the eastern side, a few people come out of their shanties. Gradually, around 100 men and women, who were recently in jail for leading a land struggle, gather and begin to talk spiritedly.

We are scared of nothing now. Our greatest fear is gone. We have realised that the conditions in jails are much better than here. We had three regular meals a day. Pregnant women even got milk and bananas, said Gursewak Singh, an agricultural worker who shares a room with five other members of his family. He was in jail for 17 days.

The police detained almost all the agricultural workers of Khiala a month ago on charges that they had encroached upon public land, constructed houses there, damaged public property and disturbed peace in the area. Mostly Dalits, these people have been struggling for years to get their share of panchayat land, which successive governments of Punjab had promised to the families of landless farm workers in the Malwa region. Except for a couple of worker families, they are totally landless.

It was Amarinder Singhs government that promised them five marla of land (0.03 acre) for each family for the first time in 1997; successive governments, led by the Akalis and the Congress, promised them at least 10 marlas. Like many poll promises, this too remained unfulfilled.

On May 2, the desperate agricultural workers of Khiala encroached upon their share of panchayat land as had been demarcated by the Punjab Villages Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961, and put up huts. Rule 10 of the Act says that a third of the panchayat land is to be leased out to workers for agricultural purposes every year. This is usually grabbed by powerful landowners or is leased out to comprador agricultural workers, letting the landlords be the de facto owners of their share of land. Rule 1964 of the Act has also a provision to provide residential plots to the Scheduled Caste families on the panchayat land in villages.

The case of Khiala is not unique. The workers of 35 villages 26 in Mansa, seven in Sangrur and two in Bhatinda districts have been involved in similar struggles since May 1. All these villages fall in the Malwa region, which is also known as the cotton belt of Punjab and is the most backward region of the State. Along with homestead plots, the workers were demanding their National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) job cards, which they have not been issued.

The land struggle peaked during the recent parliamentary elections, when political parties promised the villagers, again, 10 marla of land per family. Dalit leaders from both the mainstream parties the Congress and the BJP moved from village to village to raise the issue of plots. On May 1, workers of Hakimwala and Dalersinghwala villages in Mansa district, led by the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, the CPI (ML-Liberation) and the Revolutionary Youth Front (RYA), occupied one-third of the panchayat land.

That was the cue for at least 17 more villages to occupy land on May 7, the day the region went to the polls. Other villages kept occupying land even after the elections. Since the administration had been busy with the elections, no action was taken against them. However, when the local authorities and landlords threatened them continuously, the workers staged a dharna in front of the Deputy Commissioners office in Mansa, demanding their share of land and NREGA job cards. On May 19, around 7,000 local agricultural workers gathered to put pressure on the administration.

Thereafter, the Additional Deputy Commissioner of Mansa and the leaders of the movement reached an agreement. This required the leaders to submit all the applications for land and NREGA job cards by May 29, 2009. The land would be leased out and job cards given to workers on the basis of eligibility.

The administration put forth three conditions in the written agreement. First, there would be no new encroachments; the workers agreed to this. Second, they had to vacate the occupied land; the leaders said the workers would leave the land only after they got new land and the Additional Deputy Commissioner relented. Third, the dharna had to be called off; the workers, however, got the administration to allow a symbolic dharna to keep their movement alive.

On May 20, a group of powerful landlords stopped Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badals caravan in Mansa to protest against the agreement. On the same day, a union of zamindars staged a chakka jam (road blockade) in Barnala, a district centre, to resist the governments move. The police arrested almost all the leaders of the workers movement the next day itself. They detained nearly 3,000 agricultural workers, including women and children, in distant jails for more than half a month.

Speaking on the violation of the agreement, Mansas Deputy Commissioner Kumar Rahul told Frontline: We did not violate the agreement. We got reports of encroachments in Heerke and Mohursinghwala villages after the agreement. We had to act to enforce law and order.

Dharna outside the Deputy Commissioner's office in Mansa on May 19, demanding homestead plots and NREGA job cards.-AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA

District Senior Superintendent of Police Manminder Singh said, The workers should have adopted constitutional means. They had brought weapons for the dharna. We detained people to prevent any unnecessary abuse of law and order.

Hashmeet Singh, the RYAs general secretary in the State, said the charges of the Commissioner were false. There were no new encroachments and what they call weapons were agricultural tools that the workers carry wherever they go. It was plainly an attempt to crush the movement by any means as the pressure of the landlords, whose support is important to the Akali government, mounted on the administration. Most of the large-scale encroachments are done by the landed Jat-Sikh caste. Panchayat land slotted for landless agricultural workers is used for any public welfare project like water pumps or power grid. None of these is questioned by the administration, he said.

Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, the Congress Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, lapped up the issue and called the Prakash Singh Badal government inefficient and against the workers cause. She demanded that the government immediately give five marla to each family of the workers of Mansa as promised. But the issue was left at that as the Congress also relies heavily on the landed class in Punjab.

In order to silence its critics, the Punjab government on May 24 announced the allotment of 161 acres of village panchayat land to 10,155 beneficiaries of Scheduled Castes and Denotified Tribes (Vimukta Jatis) in 368 villages of the State. The real support to the movement came from the Left political parties of the State. The movement has to be looked in continuum. It cannot be dismissed as an electoral gimmick. Election was just a part of the movement, said All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) general secretary Swapan Mukherjee.

He said that, according to the 2001 Census, if Dalits (mostly agricultural workers) shared only 2.34 per cent of the agricultural land among themselves, the figure for the workers in the Malwa belt must be lower. It was this desperation that led them to organise and fight, he said. The workers have realised that unless they own some land, there will be no social prestige and economic benefits for them even though they remain fully engaged in the production process, said Mukherjee. Agitations that took place in these villages before the land occupation only cement this hypothesis.

Farm workers in most of the villages had been demanding a minimum wage. The average wage for a male worker is Rs.70 or Rs.80 a day and the women are paid even less. Agricultural workers in Punjab get work only for two months in a year, mostly during the harvesting season, because of the highly mechanised farming which is credited to the Green Revolution.

The average daily income of their families works out to only around Rs.15. This forces them to go to the labour markets in the nearest town where the populations of workers are so high that each member manages not more than 10-15 days work for the rest of the 10 months in a year.

In 2006, there was an organised attempt by Dalits in Nandgarh village in Mansa district to demand higher wages, but they faced a social boycott. Finally, they had to give up as they needed the landlords support in every area of life. The food for their cattle, their only source of other income, came from the private fields. Also, most of the workers are indebted to the usurious landowners who lend them money on the condition that their women should work for free in the houses of the landlords until the loan is fully repaid. The poor people generally are not able to repay the loan.

The villages are blatantly divided into caste-based regions, with the Dalit workers pushed towards the underdeveloped part and forced to live in ghettoes. The landed class is mostly Jat-Sikhs, who also dominate the panchayats. Most of the agricultural workers said they had demanded their share of land at the panchayat meetings, but to no avail. Only then had they decided to occupy land by themselves.

The workers have to suffer a lot of social humiliation, too. The attack against Bant Singh of Jhabbar village in Mansa in 2006 is a case in point. The daughter of Bant Singh, a Dalit agricultural worker, was raped by a few upper-caste Jat-Sikhs. When he refused to be a silent victim and succeeded in getting the perpetrators punished legally, he was brutally assaulted by the landlords of his village. Both his arms and a leg were cut off. Such cases are common, but in most cases the workers do not muster enough courage to pursue them, said Tarsem Jodhan, a CPI (ML-Liberation) leader.

Regarding the non-implementation of the NREGA, he said that only 10 per cent of the workers had their job cards in Malwa villages. This when the Punjab government had not utilised the Rs.350 crore of Central funds allotted for the scheme. Non-implementation of the NREGA is a political compulsion for the government as it would invite the wrath of the landlords who tend to lose the men to work for low wages, he said.

In such a socio-political context, the occupation of land by the landless was something waiting to happen. The present encroachments also seem to indicate a strong labour movement in Punjab and the rise of political assertion among Dalits.

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