Interview: Lachhman Sewewala

Lachhman Sewewala: ‘Under the farm laws, the farmer will lose his land and we will lose the PDS’

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Lacchman Sewewala. “When the government ceases to procure for the public distribution system [PDS], which is what will happen once private mandis come up, agricultural workers will suffer the maximum.”

Interview with Lachhman Sewewala, general secretary, Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union.

Despite the obvious class and caste contradictions, thousands of landless agricultural workers have thrown their weight behind the farmers protest against the three contentious farm laws. The presence of agricultural workers has added a new dimension to the erroneous discourse that the protest was singularly led by the rich land-owing farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The reason agricultural workers have joined the protest is that the new farm laws will not only affect farmers directly but also impact the public distribution system that daily wage workers depend on.

In an interview to Frontline, Lacchman Sewewala, general secretary of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, a leading agricultural workers union, explained why agricultural workers joined the protests and the impact the farm laws would have on agricultural workers. Excerpts:

Could you explain the extent of the participation of landless agricultural workers in the ongoing protests and the impact of the three new farm laws on them?

The laws will definitely have an impact on landowners but it will affect landless agricultural workers even more. It is important to see the three laws together. These laws represent the second phase of the Green Revolution. It is an issue for big land-owing farmers and they will undoubtedly benefit from it, whether it be contract farming or storage. They will still have an alternative. The maximum impact will be on us and small and medium farmers. As it is, the Green Revolution affected us badly. There are 7.5 lakh families in Punjab, and five or six persons in each family are engaged in agricultural labour.

When the Green Revolution introduced mechanisation, such as harvester combines and chaff making machines, livelihoods were lost. Even non-farm work such as livestock rearing was affected because of the use of a high degree of pesticides in crops. The use of weedicides displaced manual rooting out of weeds. The wheat chaff machines replaced the work of women workers engaged in gleaning the fallen ears of wheat. The overall harvesting season was reduced to a few months. In the Malwa region, which is known for cotton cultivation, women and children used to get work for two to three months.

Mechanisation reduced their period of work further and as a result affected other aspects, too. Shatee, the leaf residue left over from a harvest, used to be collected by workers for use as fuel in cooking. Now they buy cooking fuel from outside. The government stopped providing kerosene in ration depots. So, people must either have a gas connection and purchase gas cylinders or buy fuelwood.

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There are three decisive aspects in agriculture—cultivation, storage and sale at the mandi [market]. All these three operations have been handed over to private entities. If contract farming happens, the contractor will decide what will be sown, whether to sow paddy, cotton, gram or soyabean, or even grow flowers to make a profit. This will pose a direct threat to food security. There will be greater use of machines in such work and more use of pesticides. Once this happens, and as farmers begin to lose their land, they will join the ranks of the increasing number of unemployed job seekers, affecting the prospects of agricultural workers who are already in the queue for work. In Moga district, there is a big storage silo owned by the Adani group. We are told that it is a Food Corporation of India storage facility, but it is a proper ‘anaaj mandi’ [grain market].

Computerised quality checks are done and the grains are cleaned by machines. Compared to the government mandi, where cleaning, loading, weighing and stitching work is done manually, this silo is modernised, requiring almost no manual labour. The government mandis generate a lot of employment in their vicinity. Tea sellers and other informal sector workers benefit from being in the proximity of the government Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee facilities.

When the government ceases to procure for the public distribution system [PDS], which is what will happen once private mandis come up, agricultural workers will suffer the maximum. The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, will create a situation in which black marketing will increase and prices will go up, and we, agricultural workers, will become the ultimate losers. The Dalit population is already in a bad shape. There is a United Nations report which says that the life expectancy of Dalit women is lower than that of other women.

Survey on debt and amenities

The general impression is that farm wages are good in Punjab and Haryana compared with other States and that is the reason agricultural workers from other States migrate to these areas. We also know that farm debt has pushed farmers to the brink. What is the impact of the agrarian crisis on agricultural workers?

We did two surveys in 2017, one on the extent of debt among agricultural workers and the other on amenities. Whenever there is talk about debt and loan waivers, it is only in the context of the land-owner and farmer. But even in their case, it is politics that decides whether waiver should be given or not. Our survey involved more than 1,618 families spread over 12 villages in six districts of the Malwa region; 10 villages in Bhatinda, Sri Muktsar Sahib, Faridkot, Moga and Sangrur districts, and two villages in the Doaba region of Nakodar tehsil in Jalandhar district. It was a random survey. We found 84 per cent, or 1,364 families, were under heavy debt while 234 were “debt free”. On an average, each family owed Rs.91,000. The remaining 16 per cent was debt free not because they did not need money but because no one was prepared to lend money to them.

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We submitted the report to the Punjab government. A committee was formed to study the prevalence of suicides. Our survey revealed that agricultural workers owed the maximum to micro-finance companies and the least amount to government banks. Among banks, it was private banks that had lent more at higher rates of interest, almost comparable to that charged by private moneylenders. Interest rates were as high as 50 per cent in loans from micro-finance companies. The total loan given by these companies accounts for nearly 23.16 per cent of the total debt, which is almost the same as that lent by moneylenders. Loans by farmers owning more than 10 acres [one acre equals 0.4 hectare] of land account for 15.46 per cent of the total debt, while loans given by the small peasantry [five acres and less] to agricultural workers accounted for 6.88 per cent of the total debt. So, essentially the agricultural worker is indebted to everyone.

People get easily entrapped by micro-finance companies as loans are given on the basis of Aadhaar and claims of empowerment. When the land of the farmer is attached following a loan default, everyone comes together but when women default on loans taken from micro-finance companies, women members of self-help groups would harass the defaulter by taking away items from her household. In one instance, a woman who was humiliated by agents of a micro-finance company, committed suicide. The proportion of suicides among agricultural workers is as high as that among farmers. But the sad part is that they are not reported. To certify a death as suicide, documents showing proof of loans must be shown, which are seldom found with the workers. Of the 16,000 suicides in Punjab, as documented in a Punjab Agricultural University coordinated report, 7,000 were that of agricultural workers.

Construction of homes and health care are the two major reasons for taking loans. Farm wages are high but as most of the workers are indebted to farmers, the wages are never paid in full. Because of the interest rates, women agricultural workers do a lot of other work for free. Being landless is one of the major reasons for indebtedness. Agricultural workers also incurred debts for farming on rent. According to revenue records, 37,753 agricultural workers’ families owned 64,513 hectares of the total landholdings in Punjab. This works out to an average of 4.27 acres. A handful of families [330] could be called prosperous but that was because they were either politicians or bureaucrats. In three villages of Moga and Barnala districts, a survey by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) found that 17 per cent of the landed peasantry had become landless.

How do living conditions of agricultural workers compare with the rest of the country? At 30 per cent, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits as a percentage of the population in the country.

Our second survey was on the living conditions and amenities of agricultural workers. It was conducted by the workers themselves. A huge section of workers does not even have own dwellings. They live on the land of the landowner. Of the 1,640 families surveyed, 440, or 27.5 per cent, did not have own dwellings; 39.21 per cent, or 643 families, had only a one-room dwelling. About 1,158 homes, or 70.62 per cent, had no separate kitchen area. The situation has only become worse. The survey found that 271 families lived in ‘kutchha’ homes; 493, or 30 per cent of the families, did not have any toilet facility, and 457 families, or 27.8 per cent, had no facilities for bathing. When women had to bathe, male members would be told to step out or a cot would be propped up and covered to provide a screen as the women bathed. The condition of agricultural workers is already bad. The farm laws will make it worse.

How and why did organisations such as yours decide to participate in the protests?

We felt that the laws would affect our lives. The government needed to be told that farmers are not all by themselves; Dalits are also supporting them. Vested elements associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] are propagating that the Narendra Modi government wants to take land from farmers and give it to Dalits. Such ideas are being sown. But Dalits understand that the BJP is a follower of the Manusmriti, a text that is fundamentally against Dalits. ‘Agar kisan ki zameen cheeni jayegi, hamara PDS cheena jayega.’ [If the farmer’s land is snatched from him, the PDS system will be snatched from us.] Many of us joined the protest on November 26, the day the Dilli Chalo campaign began, then we went back to Punjab and began mobilising agricultural workers on this issue to counter the pro-farmers law propaganda. At Delhi’s borders, where the protests are on, we joined both the BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) and the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee protest sites at Bahadurgarh and Singhu respectively. There are around nine agricultural workers’ unions in Punjab. We have decided to participate in the January 26 tractor parade farmer unions have organised in the State.

“Agricultural workers are not organised”

With the kind of contradictions agricultural workers have with the landed, was it easy to support the farmers on the issue of farm laws?

When farmers agitate, it is against the government; when the agricultural workers agitate, it is mostly against the landed and caste interests in the village. When we agitate, it is not liked by the landed sections as they feel we might raise issues such as land ceiling. In Punjab, agricultural workers’ unions have taken up the issue of farm laws. So, agricultural workers are participating in protests but their numbers are lower compared with that of farmers. The reason is that agricultural workers are daily-wage workers and cannot afford to stay away from work. There are 15 lakh agricultural workers in Punjab who do not even get six months of regular work in a year. ‘Subeh kaam karenge to shaam ko khayenge.’ [If they work in the morning, they will be able to eat in the evening.] So agricultural workers are not organised the way farmers are. We came on January 7, along with women and children, and stayed until January 10 and went back. It was an expensive proposition for us.

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The other reason agricultural workers could not go to Delhi in large numbers is that when the ‘Dilli Chalo’ call was given, it was the paddy and cotton harvest season. Many workers were engaged in cotton picking in Rajasthan and Gujarat and were working in the ‘anaaj mandis’. We feel that to strengthen this agitation, the presence of the landless peasant and agricultural worker is needed. We are also farmers, but landless. We also believe that the protest does not end with protesting against the government in Delhi; these policies have their origin in decisions taken at global trade and commerce fora such as the World Trade Organisation.

Bhagat Singh had observed in his writings that it was hypocritical that nationalists were demanding freedom from the British but unwilling to give the same freedom to Dalits within the country. So, the thinking has changed now. Farmer organisations such as the BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) take up Dalit issues from time and again. There was an incident of a gang rape of a Dalit minor, and it was Jat Sikh women who courted arrest to get the accused arrested. There was another major incident in which landed farmers attacked Dalit homes because they had demanded their share of the common agricultural land. Again, the BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) took up the issue for which it was criticised by other farmer groups. We also believe that even if the laws are withdrawn, the problems faced by farmers and agricultural workers will not end. The Land Ceiling Act has to be implemented in true spirit and attempts to compromise farmers’ lives with agribusiness must also be resisted.

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