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Print edition : Sep 13, 2019 T+T-
A Dalit labourer on the outskirts of Ludhiana in Punjab, a 2014 picture. Punjab is one of the States with the lowest proportion of landowning Dalits.

A Dalit labourer on the outskirts of Ludhiana in Punjab, a 2014 picture. Punjab is one of the States with the lowest proportion of landowning Dalits.

Punjab is one of the States with the lowest proportion of landowning Dalits.

Punjab has the highest proportion of Scheduled Caste (S.C.) people in the country (31.9 per cent). In rural areas, S.Cs account for 37.46 per cent. No community has been listed as Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) in Punjab.

Punjab is one of the States with the lowest proportion of landowning Dalits. As per NSSO (66th Round) data, in Punjab only 4.3 per cent of rural S.C. households are self-employed in agriculture, compared with as high as 54 per cent among rural SAC/NSCTBC households. The proportion of agricultural labour households among rural S.Cs is 34.5 per cent compared with 7.5 per cent of SACs/NSCTBCs. As many as 94.2 per cent of S.C. households in Punjab do not have any land for cultivation compared with 36.5 per cent of SAC/NSCTBC households (Socially Advanced Classes/the non-S.C., non-S.T., non-Socially and Educationally Backward Classes). S.C. households with 2.01 to four hectares of land are a mere 0.6 per cent, compared with 18.4 per cent of SAC/NSCTBC households. No S.C. household in Punjab has more than 4 hectares, compared with 10.6 per cent among SACs/NSCTBCs. These data show that while the all-India gap between S.Cs and SACs/NSCTBCs is wide, it is wider in Punjab.

Among the avenues available for reducing the landlessness of Punjab’s Dalits is the utilisation of Shamlat lands (village common lands) available for cultivation. Reportedly, as per the State government’s records, a total of 1.57 lakh acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of Shamlat lands is available for cultivation in the State. Of this, about one-third, or nearly 53,000 acres, is reserved for S.Cs and given on annual lease to them.

Efforts are being made by a number of gram sabhas of panchayats which are dominated by members of the dominant landowning castes to dispossess S.Cs even of lands reserved for them. In Tolewal, Thandiwal and Mulowal villages of Sangrur district, the panchayats have reportedly resolved to auction Shamlat lands reserved for Dalits and extract unaffordably high lease amounts from them, which will make it impossible for Dalits to hold on to these lands.

Influential people encroach upon and grab Shamlat lands despite the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1953 (Punjab Act No. 1 of 1954), amended in 1961, and the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1955, amended in 1961 and 1964. Recently, landless Dalits have begun to rise in protest against such practices. An organisation known as the Zamin Prapati Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) has come up championing the cause of joint farming by Dalits on panchayat lands. However, a permanent solution for this is for the State government to grant the entire 1.57 lakh acres of Shamlat lands available for cultivation to S.Cs of the respective villages, with full ownership and patta/title deed. When it is recognised that these lands are available for cultivation purposes, there is no need to give them out on annual leases. The cruelty inflicted upon the Dalits of Punjab since long deserves reparation. This land grant will be part of such reparation. The government should also provide group minor irrigation for these lands.

If necessary, additional grants can be provided to panchayats for the income lost hitherto from leasing of Shamlat lands. Dalits should be encouraged to farm these lands jointly with high-value crops, agricultural and if possible horticultural. In the case of horticultural crops, which will have to be tended over a long gestation period, the Dalit grantees themselves can be engaged to provide labour on these lands on wage basis under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The ZPSC and other organisations working for Dalits should be fully associated with these efforts.

The existing legislation must be amended to the extent necessary to release Shamlat lands for granting them to Dalits with clear ownership. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh should take personal interest in this and get this done.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi called for the grant of lands to the Gond cultivators of Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh when she visited the place following the massacre of 10 Gond cultivators on July 17, 2019. Her visit is reminiscent of the visit of Indira Gandhi, when she was out of power, to Belchi in Bihar after the massacre on May 27, 1979, of 11 Dalits, along with three non-Dalit associates, there. Priyanka Gandhi, in the same spirit as her call for land-grant on ownership basis to the Gond tribals of Sonbhadara district, and other Congress leaders must actualise this quickly.

Intervention by the Central government will also be a valuable aid. The Communist Party of India, in the early years after Independence, had a base in Punjab, especially in districts like Sangrur. The two Communist parties now can in their own ways help in and catalyse this. If all political parties, in power and out of power, take up this matter out of a sense of patriotic and constitutional duty to Dalits, the most oppressed class of people, along with S.Ts, this matter can be solved.