Landless and indebted

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Many landless workers in Punjab are caught in a cycle of indebtedness, trying to pay off debts by working on very low wages for their creditors.

ANNIE ZAIDI in Chandigarh

Mohinder Kaur, her mother-in-law Dalip Kaur, sister-in-law Harbans Kaur and their children.-PHOTOGRAPHS: ANNIE ZAIDI

JUST outside Ludhiana, one of the richest and most bustling cities in one of India's most prosperous States, a large hoarding offers "Limousines For Hire". A few kilometres later, it becomes impossible to escape the cruel irony of a woman getting paid Rs.15 a month to clean out a cattle-shed.

That is what Mohinder Kaur of Mohie village earns, as does her sister-in-law Harbans Kaur and as their mother-in-law Dalip Kaur did before them. None of them knows exactly how much they owe to the farmers who gave them loans on various occasions, though they guess that it could be anything between Rs.50,000 and Rs.70,000. So they pay off their debts by working on low wages for their creditors.

The women of the family do what is locally called goha-kuda, which includes domestic work and taking care of cattle, cleaning the sheds and taking away dung. For all this, Mohinder Kaur says, they get Rs.15 a month for every head of cattle. "I know I should be paid more and I asked for a raise, but I cannot quit working here until the money is repaid, and we cannot raise so much money. Sometimes we also work in the fields, after all this work, to make some money. My husband lost his hand in a farm accident. We spent a lot of money then, and another big amount trying to build this house. But most of the time we spent small amounts such as Rs.2,000, on weddings or when there was an illness or some emergency."

Mohinder Kaur, her sister-in-law and their daughters are also working to pay off a succession of small debts incurred by their mother-in law. This practice is a long-established one throughout Punjab, where daughters-in-law inherit the family's debt and work in the households of the moneylenders at very low wages to pay it off.

None of these loans is formal, and none of the debtors has any copy of the records showing how much is owed and what percentage of interest is charged.

Of course, it is not just the women. There are men such as Kulwant Singh, a 45-year-old agricultural labourer from Khandoor, who make barely Rs.200 a month. Kulwant Singh told Frontline that he could not even support himself and depended on his sister's son.

Baba Singh is a young man who works for Rs.1,500 a month (the minimum daily wage in Punjab is Rs.92). He has no land of his own and owes about Rs.70,000. "I took the money for a house. But now I have worked for the farmer who lent me money for nearly 10 years. I work day and night. I get no holidays. On Deepavali, I am allowed a two-hour break."

What is most worrying about such debt traps is that these are not stray cases. Almost every single landless labourer has the same story to tell.

Kulwant Singh makes only Rs.200 a month, which is not enough to support himself, let alone pay off his debts.-

Dr. Manjit Singh, a sociologist who heads the Ambedkar Centre at Punjab University, describes such indebted labourers, who spend their lives trying to work off debts, as "attached agricultural labourers". He told Frontline: "According to our estimates, there are at least one lakh workers in Punjab who are `prone to bondage', or technically bonded. The wives of the attached workers are employed for goha-kuda, often without any wages at all. Their exploitation is so deeply rooted in traditional roles enacted by the landed and the landless of the village that it is not even recognised as `bonded labour'." He also estimates that, going by the technical and legal definitions of bonded labour, there are another two and a half lakh bonded workers at the brick kilns.

Tarsem Jodhan, a former legislator from the region who has organised some of the brick kiln workers under the banner of the Lal Jhanda Brick-kiln Mazdoor Union, agrees. Though the union has been struggling to get better wages for workers, there is no escaping the fact that all of them are already in debt and are trying to work it off. He said that unions had managed to free some workers from the debts, but the problem was too deeply entrenched to be tackled without proper organisation.

As far as debt is concerned, the focus has been entirely on farmers in Punjab, especially after the spate of farmers' suicides in the last decade. However, according to Dr. Parmod Kumar of the Institute of Development and Communication, who conducted a study on the suicide cases, at least 30 per cent of those who committed suicide were landless workers and not landowners. Nobody talks much about the landless workers who choose to end their lives, however, and nobody asks questions about why and how they were driven over the edge.

Bonded labour and indebtedness among the landless are closely intertwined with the non-implementation of the minimum wage structure. The Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act was passed in 1976. The Supreme Court has interpreted this law to be applicable to any labourer forced to work for less than the State's minimum wage. In Punjab, very few people are paid the minimum wage. Mostly, the rate varies between Rs.40 and Rs.80, which does not guarantee that the workers can survive, let alone save or pay off their debts.

On the other hand, with the growing mechanisation of agriculture and the lack of agro-based industries, there are fewer jobs around. Son Singh, one of the indebted workers in Mohie village, said: "It is easier to sell animals than it is to sell ourselves. Go to the labour chowk in Ludhiana and you will see thousands of labourers working for Rs.50 or Rs.40 or anything they can get."

Increasingly, agricultural workers are hired on a contractual basis, where they get an advance payment of Rs.15,000-18,000 for the entire year. If any extra money is loaned to the worker, the interest rate charged is as high as 60 per cent a year. Since the worker is often forced to borrow small amounts, this debt trap stays in place for years on end. The paradox is that the poor workers are always forced to borrow to meet basic needs such as health care, because their savings are meagre. The public health services are in a shambles and private doctors are unaffordable. The people worst affected are landless workers and their families, who are not only malnourished but also exposed to hazardous chemicals such as pesticides.

Dr. Manjit Singh believes that nothing much has changed over the three decades that he has been studying bonded labour in the State apart from the forms in which it occurs. "We recently finished a study of bonded labour and found the worst cases in the Malwa belt, which includes Sangrur, Mansa, Bhatinda and Faridkot. There are several families who have been working without wages for as long as 20 or 30 years. I've seen instances where, when the worker died after being exposed to insecticide, his brother was brought in to work in his place. Debts are passed on within families."

Baba Singh has been working for 10 years for a farmer who lent him money. He gets Rs.1,500 a month.-

This is corroborated by activists in the Malwa belt, who have been trying to organise workers under the banner of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha. Since there is no land to take away, the farmer who advances the loan takes away the debtor's livestock and even locks up his house. The homeless family is then forced to stay in a dharamshala or other public spaces that are common to the whole village. Activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation have intervened in many instances, by breaking open locks on the houses of workers locked out of their homes.

According to Bhagwant Singh Sumaon, State secretary of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, the organisation called for a strike in 2004 demanding that each woman doing goha-kuda be paid Rs.50 a month for every head of cattle. He said: "We believe that if the interest is charged in money and the work that these women do is properly paid, they can pay off their debts. But working at little or no wages, they stay bonded labourers forever. There are many additional ways of adding to the loan amount. We have seen instances where the men are given opium husk as wages. The zamindar gives a `free' spoonful at first, or boils it in a `free' cup of tea. When the labourer is addicted, he supplies large amounts and deducts the cost from his wages. There are also cases where the zamindar bails out landless men arrested for petty crimes, then makes them pay by treating the bail amount as a loan."

However, the struggle to organise workers and insist upon the implementation of minimum wages is a complicated one that meets resistance from the richer, mostly upper-caste farmers of the region. Sumaon told Frontline: "Recently, in at least four villages, the zamindars formed committees and announced the boycott of all labourers who demanded higher wages. One farmer in Kalipur was even fined Rs.5,000 because he employed workers who were supposedly boycotted."

Boycotting is an old technique that the landed farmers of Punjab have used to crush landless workers' attempts to get organised. The landless have only a few head of cattle or pigs to support themselves and they depend on the farmers' fields for free fodder. If the zamindar bans entry into his fields, the worker cannot survive. When economic factors alone do not suffice, cultural factors come into play. The landless also need the fields to relieve themselves, since there are no toilets and the few that the panchayats build are immediately taken over and controlled by the dominant castes. This combination of social and economic pressure ensures that no worker struggle lasts very long.

Dr. Manjit Singh believes that the situation will not improve unless there is simultaneous political and social empowerment of Dalits. "Most of the workers belong to the Scheduled Castes and they hold only 2.34 per cent of the land under cultivation in the State. On the other hand, they are used to being oppressed. The unequal economic relationship is only fortified and strengthened by unequal social relations. That has to change first."

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