Punjab: Land struggle in the time of pandemic

Print edition : July 31, 2020

A farmer working in a paddy field during Unlock-2, in Amritsar, on July 2. Photo: PTI

A farmer sowing paddy seeds using a direct seeding machine at Pannuan village on the outskirts of Mohali in Punjab on June 10. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

The strong-arm methods adopted by rich farmers to force agricultural labour to work at lower wages following the pandemic-induced shortage of migrant workers exposes the fault lines in rural Punjab. The question of land becomes central again as the battle rages on caste and class lines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Punjab, India’s foremost agricultural State, like never before. Heavily dependent on migrant workers, primarily from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, the paddy crop, which covers more than 70 per cent of the cultivated area in the ongoing kharif season, seems to be bearing the brunt of the crisis. This could have serious implications for national food security. Punjab is the second largest contributor of rice to the central pool, next only to Andhra Pradesh. The shortage of migrant workers has exposed the deep fissures in Punjab’s socio-economic fabric, along caste and class lines.

Transplanting, the ongoing agricultural operation, has been performed largely by migrant workers ever since rice cultivation began in the State in the 1960s. Apart from costing far less, migrant workers are considered to be more efficient and specialised in performing this task. The pandemic-induced shortage of such workers means that this year’s paddy crop is at risk, unless farmers are willing to pay far more for the locally available labour.

While “local” agricultural workers are available in plenty, the wages they demand are much higher than what is paid to migrant workers. For instance, wages for transplanting paddy ranged from Rs.2,500 to Rs.3,000 an acre last year (depending on the variety and the region); currently it is 50 per cent higher—between Rs.4,500 and Rs.5,500 an acre. The sharp increase in the cost of production, inadequately compensated by the recently announced minimum support price (MSP) for paddy, means Punjab farmers are staring at a considerable squeeze on profits from paddy this year.

In response, farmers are employing various means to safeguard their profits to cope with labour shortage. Across the State, farmers are renting transplanting machines that require far less labour and are also cost-effective. This is expected to give a fillip to the long-term adoption of direct seeding of rice (DSR) technology, implications of which are still not clear. Additionally, some farmers from the Doaba region, the area between the rivers Beas and the Sutlej, are trying to woo migrant workers by arranging private vehicles and buses by and promising labourers sops such as liquor and food.

Coercive labour practices

However, another disturbing trend has emerged. There are reports that some farmers, particularly in the Malwa region, south of the Sutlej, are resorting to coercive labour practices to manage the situation. This includes unilaterally fixing wages for transplantation work at the same level or insignificantly higher than that paid last year; controlling the movement of workers by forbidding them to seek work outside the village or for a farmer outside the village; and, threatening workers with a “social boycott” and imposing hefty fines of up to Rs.1 lakh if they did not adhere to landowners’ diktats. Of course, Dalit labourers have been asked to bring their own utensils for food.

What explains this unevenness in the response of farmers from different regions in Punjab to a common problem—the shortage of migrant labour and a subsequent rise in the costs of production? A superficial reading of the situation may appear to suggest that these measures have been necessitated by farmers’ urge to safeguard their profits. However, a closer reading of Punjab’s political economy indicates that the high-handed reaction of farmers in Malwa Punjab in the wake of the pandemic has its roots in the shifting class and caste dynamics in the past two decades, particularly between Jat Sikh landowners and Dalit agricultural labourers. But first one needs to turn to Punjab’s political economy, which provides the context for the social dynamics.

Agriculture, the central axis

Punjab has seen significant structural transformation in its economy since the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Structural transformation means the steady shift in the structure of workforce away from agriculture towards industries and services. The general trend observed in India is that of a stark mismatch between sectors. While gross domestic product (GDP) is increasingly concentrated in the services sector, agriculture still employs more than half of the workforce. Punjab, however, deviates from this broad pattern. In 2015-16, agriculture and allied activities employed only a quarter of work force in Punjab—compared to 44 per cent nationally. This implies that a larger proportion of the workforce moved away from agriculture in Punjab when compared with other parts of India. The industry sector employed just one-fourth of the workforce nationally, compared to one-third in Punjab. More importantly, the services sector in Punjab has been able to absorb workers released from agriculture, while the services sector in India as a whole is infamous for generating “jobless growth”. Unlike at the all-India level where services contribute 55 per cent of the gross value added (GVA) while employing merely 30 per cent of the workforce, in Punjab, services contribute 47 per cent to the GVA, while employing a more proportional 41 per cent of the workforce. In short, the labour force in Punjab is far more evenly distributed across the three sectors than in the rest of the country.

Despite the high, and increasing, share of services in its economy, agriculture remains the central axis of Punjab’s economy. This is because services and industry in Punjab are closely interlinked to agriculture. A majority of industries and manufacturing in Punjab are agro-based such as food processing and textiles and trade and transportation of foodgrains adds to the growth of the service sector in the State.

Who controls agriculture and farming in Punjab? Data show that big cultivators from dominant castes (primarily Jat Sikhs) contribute to a large share of agriculture in the GDP of Punjab. This class of big cultivators was the prime beneficiary of the Green Revolution technology. It has continued to amass wealth and opportunities, leading to the widening of inequality in the State. In 2002-03, Punjab had the highest inequality in rural land ownership; the gini-coefficient was 0.82, compared to the Indian average of 0.75. (The gini coefficient is a measure of inequality varying between 0, implying perfect equality, and 1, which implies highest inequality). This inequality in the ownership of land has been widening only in the last few decades (see Figure 1).

The inequality is starker in the case of operational holdings because rich farmers in Punjab have almost entirely captured the land lease in market by leasing in land from all sources, including from small and marginal landowners, termed as “reverse tenancy”. This is reflected in Punjab’s operational holding structure which shows that only 33 per cent of the holdings are small and marginal holdings, that is, below two hectares as compared to 86 per cent at the all-India level. More significantly, small and marginal farmers operate only 10 per cent of the cultivated area in Punjab, compared to the all-India average of 50 per cent (Table 1). Although it is true that Jat Sikhs also figure as small and marginal landowners along with other castes, the medium and big landowners are almost exclusively Jat Sikhs.

Given adequate state support and strong agricultural infrastructure, farming in Punjab has also been profitable. This is visible from a recent NABARD study which shows that agricultural households in Punjab, which are predominantly Jat Sikhs, had the highest average monthly income across States. However, profitability from agriculture has been under some stress in the recent period, reflecting the prolonged agrarian distress in the country.

At the other end of Punjab’s rural economy are Dalits, landless and manual workers, with a high degree of overlap between them. Dalits constitute a staggering 32 per cent of Punjab’s overall population and 38 per cent of its rural population, which are among the highest proportions across the States in India. In contrast, the all-India share of Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) in the total population and rural population is roughly half of levels prevailing in Punjab. Despite this, the control of Dalits in Punjab over land and other means of production is almost negligible. In 2015-16, Dalits in Punjab owned just 6 per cent of all operational holdings, and 4 per cent of the area of all operational holdings. The corresponding all-India averages were 12 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively. These figures are striking because they show that while the gap at the all-India level between Dalits and caste Hindus is wide, it is wider in Punjab. Even among Dalits who own land, most of them are small or marginal holdings, and often of poorer quality, which makes cultivation less economically viable.

Thus, while the Green Revolution enhanced incomes of the landed Jat Sikhs—along with the merchantscommission agents who predominantly come from Bania and Khatri castes— Dalits and the rural poor have largely been excluded from the prosperity. Dalits, who earlier used to lease in small parcels of land, experienced widespread evictions in the 1970s and 1980s, which still continues. High land prices and rental rate for leasing in land continue to act as formidable barriers for Dalits in accessing land.

Dalit assertion phenomenon

Dalits, particularly men, have been permanently leaving the agriculture sector altogether as they do not find employment even as agricultural labour. The high levels of mechanisation and in migration of labour from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand has meant that an increasing number of “local” Dalits and manual workers (particularly male) depend on casual work in the informal non-farm sector in nearby towns and cities. They are in occupations such as transport, construction, loading/unloading work in grain markets, rice husking/shelling in mills and in agro-processing industries and providing services in restaurants and at weddings. There are important regional variations to this: The Doaba region shows higher level of non-farm employment opportunities because of being closer to the industrial and manufacturing hubs of Jalandhar and Ludhiana, while the Malwa region has been traditionally poor in generating non-farm employment (Table 2).

The declining dependence of Dalits on agriculture and hence on dominant Jat Sikh capitalist farmers for employment has had deeper socio-political implications. Scholars on Punjab’s rural economy such as Surinder Jodhka, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, have pointed to the growing assertion of Dalits in the last two decades against the dominant landowning Jat Sikhs. This assertion has often been cultural. Dalits have set up separate Gurudwaras and deras, operating separate cremation grounds and proclaiming themselves as Ad-Dharmis or Ravidassias. They have thus indicated a distancing from Jat-dominated Sikhism and asserted their own separate claims over spiritual and cultural domains. More recently, Dalits have been able to collectivise and assert their right to the one-third share of village common lands leased out by gram panchayats, as notified in the Punjab Village Common Land Regulation Act of 1961.

As a result of the growing Dalit assertion, there have been increasing instances of caste and class conflicts in various villages of Punjab. Conflicts relating to Dalits’ share of panchayat land are particularly intense in the relatively agriculturally backward Malwa region, where, as shown before, non-farm employment opportunities are low and unable to absorb workers displaced from agriculture. A recent documentary titled “Landless” by Dalit film-maker Randeep Mandokke has explored these changing caste-class dynamics in rural Punjab.

A relatively small organisation called Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), formed in 2014 and with a significant presence in the Malwa region, has been at the forefront of the Dalits’ struggle to reclaim control over their share of panchayat land through annual auction bidding. The leased land is then collectively cultivated by the Dalits in the village. The ZPSC has on its agenda the reduction in the ceiling on land ownership in the State, from the current 17 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) to 10 acres. It also seeks to redistribute the surplus land thus obtained among Dalits and landless households. However, their agitation is being continuously targeted and sabotaged by Jat Sikhs who field “dummy” Dalit candidates to bid at a higher price than Dalits collectivised under the ZPSC can afford. The ZPSC has protested against this blatant rigging at the auctions and demanded that the auction bid happen in S.C. Dharamshalas (community centre) instead of panchayat bhawans, which are dominated by Jat Sikhs, and in the presence of district administrative officials. The ZPSC has demanded that Dalits be given land at lower than the market rental rate and on long-term leases of 33 years instead of bidding for the same land every year. A particularly noticeable feature of the struggle led by the ZPSC is the equal participation of Dalit women in the protest demonstrations. This is not surprising because they have disproportionately borne the brunt of repression and violence by Jat Sikh landlords.

Apart from rigging the auction bids, the dominant Jat Sikhs landowners have also resorted to violence and repression against this increased assertion by Dalits in the Malwa region. The Jat Sikhs’ close nexus with the police and the district administration has emboldened the upper castes. Landowners have prohibited Dalits from using village common grazing lands and restricted the collection of fuel and fodder from their fields. The increasing resort to gun violence on activists of the ZPSC reflects the imbalance in strength.

Therefore, it is not coincidental that Jat Sikh farmers predominantly from the Malwa region resorted to despotic labour control measures when local Dalit workers demanded higher wages for paddy transplantation. Indeed, this seems to reflect a continuity in the oppression and exploitation of Dalits who are trying to reclaim their rightful share over village common lands. Jat Sikhs are vehemently opposed to sharing land with Dalits, so much so that they do not even lease out their lands to Dalits. This only affirms the fact that command over land still remains the cornerstone of socio-political control of Jat Sikhs over Dalits and other classes in rural Punjab.

The pandemic and the land question

The relationship between the landless Dalits and Jat Sikh landowners was already undergoing a significant transformation in the recent decades with the breakdown of ties of dependence and patronage. The despotic measures adopted by the Jat Sikh farmers is only likely to further sharpen the class and caste divide. The exercise of social power by dominant Jat Sikhs should not be understood as an isolated event, necessitated by the sudden disruption in their profits triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it should be seen as being rooted in the larger dynamics of changing class-caste relations situated in the context of the wider crisis in Punjab agriculture. The resort to draconian means reveals the extent to which the Jat Sikh landowners are willing to go to in order to reassert social control over Dalits. Dalits, for their part, are less and less willing to submit. These control tactics have exacerbated the severe economic distress faced by Dalits, poor and marginalised during the lockdown due to mass loss of employment in the non-farm sector.

While the pandemic has exposed the fault lines in Punjab’s rural economy, it has also provided an opportunity to mend them. The crisis has brought to the fore many structural issues that need renewed emphasis—principally the widespread landlessness among Dalits and their assertion for their rightful share of panchayat land. The growth of grass-roots labour class organisations such as the ZPSC, which have been challenging the status quo successfully in many cases, offers important lessons. For one, it forces a revisit of the task of land and tenancy reforms, a task that has long disappeared from the policy and political agenda of the mainstream political parties, including Dalit political parties, despite its continued relevance and enormous potential to combat rural poverty (P.S. Krishnan, Frontline, September 13, 2019).

What is striking is the fact that there is hardly any political manifestation of the assertion of the Dalits of Punjab. Neither the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) nor any other party with a mass base among Dalits has addressed the material aspirations of Dalits, which is manifestly centred around the land question. Instead, Punjab politics continues to be dominated by the landed and trading elites, through either the Akali Dal or the Congress, or marginally by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It appears that politics as circumscribed by the trappings of electoral politics has limited the Dalits’ ability to access political power that addresses their core demands. It is obvious that neither Dalit exclusivism nor identity politics offers an escape from this trap. The simmering tensions in the countryside prevailing in the wake of the pandemic offers the context for a wider social and political alliance that is based on egalitarian principles, in which the land question is brought centre stage.

Gaurav Bansal is an economist based in Bengaluru.