Down and out in Punjab

Print edition : December 11, 1999

Punjab's Dalits get a raw deal; and this is deepening caste fissures in the State.

SAMEY SINGH desperately needed time off from his job at a brick kiln near Faridkot, southern Punjab. Back home, in Megha Kheri, the family's home village near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, his son Rahul had fallen seriously ill. But Samey Singh had tak en a Rs.5,000 advance from the kiln owners at the start of the season, and they were only willing to let him go if he left behind his wife and daughter. Pali Singh and her daughter Pooja were forced to work without pay and on some days, without food. Bot h were often beaten, and six-year-old Pooja was threatened with sexual abuse. At sunset, mother and daughter were locked into a six foot by ten foot hovel.

There are supposed to be no slaves in Punjab, one of India's richest States. In a State known for its affluence and egalitarian traditions, its Dalits have for long been believed to be better off than oppressed castes elsewhere. In some senses, they stil l are. But Samey Singh's story is just one in a chain of brutalities directed at Punjab's Dalits in recent months. At a time of shrinking economic opportunities, caste fissures are deepening in the State.

POOJA would have spent her life as a slave if it had not been for chance. In September, Tarsem Jodhan, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)-affiliated Lal Jhanda Punjab Bhatta Mazdoor Union (Red Flag Punjab Brick-kiln Workers' Un ion) visited western Uttar Pradesh on an election tour. During a meeting in Megha Kheri, held to canvass Chamar caste migrant workers there, Samey Singh came up to Jodhan. His wife had been thrown out of the kiln that month because injuries caused by bea tings had left her unable to work. The couple had tried unsuccessfully to get their daughter back. "The kiln owner did not give me my job back," Samey Singh said, "so I didn't have any money. He just wouldn't give Pooja back to us."

Jodhan moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which sent an officer to rescue Pooja Singh. On October 14, six months after she was made a slave, Jodhan found Pooja locked in a cell, terrified, near-starving, and bruised from repeated beatings. "They us ed to tell me they would get me married," Pooja Singh told Frontline, "so that they could put my children to work as slaves too." Amazingly, police officials at Dharamkot, the Faridkot area where Pooja and Pali Singh were held captive, have taken no action. "When I was thrown out of the kiln, I went to the Dharamkot police station, but they threw me out. No one would even let me into the building, let alone register a complaint," Pali Singh said.

A woman labourer at a brick kiln. The economic problems of Dalits in a State known for its prosperity are sharpening, thanks to the failure of successive State governments to shape rural development policies.-HARDIP PURI

Ghawaddi village, an hour's drive from Ludhiana, is the Samey Singh family's new home. Although most workers here say the kiln owner has a good reputation in the area, conditions are sub-human. Workers are paid about Rs.140 for every 1,000 bricks they tu rn out. If women and children work 16 hours a day along with the men, a family can make some 800 bricks. Each family puts in 12 days at a stretch, and then takes three days off to recover. During the monsoons, most of the estimated 2.5 lakh migrant brick -kiln workers return to their homes in Uttar Pradesh. What they save through the nine months in Punjab has to see them through the monsoon, for there is little work to be had in Muzaffarnagar or elsewhere.

If the wages seem relatively attractive, they do not guarantee basic human rights. Hours spent in the slush, exposed to the evening cold and searing kiln heat, mean that sickness is common. Workers in Ghawaddi told Frontline that each family spent upwards of Rs.1,200 a month to treat fevers and diarrhoea. Workers have to use the services of the plethora of quacks operating in rural Punjab, for there are no government-run health facilities nearby. Access to clean drinking water is minimal, and the re are no sanitation facilities at all. Most children appear severely malnourished. No families carry ration cards, and they must buy food in the market. Sugar sells at Rs.17 a kg, and flour at Rs.8. No family can afford vegetables or milk.

Perhaps worst of all, the migrant workers are denied even the few opportunities for progress that Dalits have elsewhere. Not a single child in Ghawaddi goes to school. Although a few families have tried to keep at least one son at school in Uttar Pradesh , girls do not get that chance. Work starts at an improbably young age, with three-year-olds scooping out slush for their parents to shape into bricks. Although service terms and working conditions at Punjab's brick kilns violate the Factories Act, Lal J handa Bhatta Mazdoor Union officials say that not one single unit has been prosecuted so far. Kiln accidents are common, but families never get the compensation they are legally entitled to.

MIGRANT workers do not have a vote, so the Punjab Government succeeds in pretending that they do not exist. But conditions are not enormously better for Punjab-based Dalits either. Most Dalits at Dhaliyan village belong to the Ramdasiya caste, and have f or generations worked on the fields of local landlords. During the Green Revolution, when demand for workers went up and wages rose, most Dalit families managed to procure some basic assets. Every family now has a few buffaloes and decent shelter. But wi th combine harvesters displacing agricultural labourers, and machines taking over jobs such as planting potatoes, making a living is becoming more difficult than it has been in decades.

Samey Singh and his wife Pali in their new home in Gawwadi village.-HARDIP PURI

Raj Singh has seen the change. "Ten years ago," he said, "it was easy to find work 25 days a month, and I would be busy right through the harvest and sowing seasons. Now, there is barely work in the fields for three days a month." Wages, too, have dipped . "The landlords offer us Rs.60 a day. If we ask for more, they tell us there are thousands of migrants willing to work for half that amount." As a result, more and more Dalits have been pushed to do casual jobs, such as selling vegetables or scavenging plastic bags to be recycled. Others have ended up in the brick kilns. A decade ago, Ram Dayal, a resident of Burji Hakima, worked as a farmer. "I could buy 10 kg of gur (raw sugar) with a day's wage then," he said. "Now, it takes me two days of work at t he kiln to buy the same quantity."

The problem does not lie in combine harvesters, but in the failure of successive governments in the State to shape rural development policies that benefit the poor. The village infrastructure that could have improved the lives of the Dalits has fallen ap art. In Dhaliyan, as in many other neighbouring villages, only Dalits send their children to government schools. This strange apartheid has come about because most people who can afford it, send their children to private schools which have better facilit ies and also teachers who actually show up for work, unlike state-run schools. Dhaliyan does have a ration shop, but despite recent price hikes, only poor-quality sugar and rice are available here, and kerosene never is. By way of contrast, the Punjab Go vernment has the budget to waive electricity charges for big landlords who own tubewells.

IF the economic problems of Dalits have been sharpening in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance has added to their woes by unleashing the state apparatus against them. On September 17, police and administration officials in Jee van Nagar, Faridkot, demolished 40 houses built by Dalits on government land. About 175 people, including 50 children, were thrown out with due notice and lost an estimated Rs.15 lakh in the demolition. The Dalits had been allowed to move on to the land in the build-up to the recent Lok Sabha elections, and some had even secured electricity connections. Their failure to return the favour by voting for the SAD-BJP combine, residents say, led to the retaliation.

A similar demolition took place in Sangrur after the Lok Sabha elections. Hansa Singh's family, which lives in Buttar village near Moga, chose to vote for the Communist Party of India(Marxist) candidate, Principal Ajit Singh. Despite the fact that their home on shamlat (village) land had been up for six years, Hansa Singh's son Baldev Singh said, a local SAD worker and panchayat member ensured its demolition. Dalit houses were brought down also in another Sangrur village, Lasoolpur. The Faridkot Unit of the Association for Democratic Rights did intervene in the demolition there, but no official action has been taken. Minor village-level demolition generally passes unreported and unnoticed.

Pooja, Samey Singh's six-year-old daughter, who was enslaved and maltreated for six months by her employer, after her release.-HARDIP PURI

When the state does step in, it is generally to crush Dalit protests. Gurketan Singh and Beera Singh were infuriated when the upper caste sarpanch of Burji Kalan village in Bhatinda district decided to lease out a pond, which the entire village used, to a contractor. A fight broke out, and Sarpanch Sukhjit Singh was stabbed. The next day, June 7, mobs burned down the houses of Gurketan Singh and Beera Singh, and threw into a nearby canal whatever belongings they could find. The local unit of the Communi st Party of India (CPI) intervened to secure peace, and arranged for both the young men to surrender. Nonetheless, both were alleged to have been tortured in custody. No action was taken against the mob which destroyed the Dalit families' houses.

In January, four members of the village panchayat of Bhungar Khera village in Abohar paraded a handicapped Dalit woman naked through the village. No action was taken by the police, despite local Dalit protests. It was only on July 20 that the four pancha yat members were arrested, after the State Home Department was compelled to order an inquiry into the incident. But the State police is prompt in redressing complaints against Dalits. When 65-year old Nand Lal failed to pay back an advance of Rs.6,000 to the owner of the brick kiln where he works, personnel from the Jalaldiwal police post of Raikot police station stepped in. "The police made him put his thumb impression on papers written in English," said his son Balbir Singh, "and said they would beat him if he did not return the money soon."

CHIEF MINISTER Prakash Singh Badal has been putting out a series of curious ideas on how these problems ought to be solved. At a function in Jalandhar on October 24, he promised to set up "Dalit specific schools" in the State so that Scheduled Caste chil dren could "get quality education to compete for the IAS (Indian Administrative Service), IPS (Indian Police Service) and other services." This proclamation that a de facto caste segregation of education would receive official sanction sadly went unchallenged. Interestingly, the Ambedkar Academy, set up in Mohali to train Dalit students for the civil services, has not had much success. The number of Dalit students who have made it to the allied services can be counted on one's fingertips; and fin gers are not needed to count the number of central services entrants the academy has produced.

Programmes such as the State Government's pet Shagun Scheme pass for Dalit welfare commitments. Some Rs.45 crore has been given out since the scheme was put in place after the SAD-BJP came to power, in the form of Rs.5,100-grants to Dalit girls at the ti me of their marriage. Misappropriation of funds has been one common complaint. Just three Dalit families in Dhaliyan received the handouts, for example, although 20 girls here had got married over the last two years. But, more disturbingly, the scheme pr ovides incentives to poor Dalit families to marry their daughters off early rather than keep them in school. Worst of all, the Shagun Scheme provides state subsidies for dowry, and promotes wasteful expenditure.

Tarsem Jodhan, general secretary of the Red Flag Punjab Brick-kiln Workers Union, with Scheduled Caste labourers in Dhaliyan village.-HARDIP PURI

PUNJAB'S society has had little place for the kinds of violent caste confrontation seen elsewhere in the country. But signs of trouble simmer under the surface. Ten years ago, the State Government provided grants of Rs.60,000 to Mahila Mandals to purchas e marquees and cooking utensils. The idea was to allow the Mahila Mandals to generate revenue by renting out these assets for weddings and religious ceremonies. In practice, Dalits found themselves pushed out of the Mahila Mandals in order to ensure that they did not gain access to the utensils. A survey carried out by Chandigarh's Institute for Development and Communication (IDC) found, for example, that Dalits made up just 10 per cent of Mahila Mandal members in Jalandhar, and that there was not a sin gle member in Patiala.

The figures do not make pretty reading on other counts either. A study carried out for the IDC by Bhupendra Yadav and A.M. Sharma points to just a few of the stark indexes of deprivation of Dalits in Punjab. Although Punjab has the highest proportion of Scheduled Castes to its population as a whole - at 28.3 per cent - Dalits own just 2.54 per cent of the agricultural land. While the percentage of literates in the State is higher than the national average, its Dalits are less likely to be educated than their counterparts nationwide. School enrolment rates are dismal, and drop-out rates appalling. Amazingly, about 40 per cent of Dalit children in Punjab are likely to be malnourished. Between 1981 and 1991, the percentage of Dalits in Punjab living below the poverty line barely declined, while the numbers of both Dalit and non-Dalit poor actually grew.

Despite their numerical strength, Punjab's traditionally pro-Congress(I) Dalits have had little political power in effect. The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the early 1990s appears to have ended. But the SAD-BJP's marked upper-caste biases, an d the growing deprivation among Dalits, could soon force a new search for political representation. Recent proposals to remove reservations for Scheduled Castes in the Shiromani Gurudwara Praban-dhak Committee (SGPC) provoked bitter debates. A recent Sup reme Court order limiting reservations in promotions among government employees sparked vigorous Dalit mobilisation, as well as threats from some employee organisations of upper caste counter-mobilisations.

The four gurdwaras and two temples in Pakhowal village map Punjab's caste terrain. Two gurdwaras are run by upper-caste Sikhs, and two by Dalit communities; both temples, too, are divided on caste lines. It is not as if either temples or gurdwaras would deny entry to members of other castes, but the fact remains they are segregated spaces. If caste tensions have never exploded in Punjab, it was perhaps because prosperity subsumed social tensions. With opportunity narrowing, this peace could soon be ques tioned.

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