How Punjab's Dalit Labourers Are Trapped to Live a Bonded Life

A survey revealed that big peasants, who were among the top lenders to the labourers, gave them loans in the garb of paying low daily wages.
May 30, 2021 | Vivek Gupta

Mansa, Patiala (Punjab): A narrow dirt road alongside a filthy pond enters Neelam’s one room house at Aklia village of Punjab’s Mansa district. The house is just a pile of bricks. The floor is muddy and uneven.

Neelam, in her 40s, says that whenever heavy rain lashes the village, her house is under dirty pond water for days. But it is the least of her problems. Her husband, a landless Dalit labourer, died of tuberculosis in 2015, leaving her and four daughters in penury. Neelam turned to odd jobs after her husband’s death.

In 2019 she got her elder daughter married and this made her life even worse. To wed her daughter, she borrowed Rs 75,000 from five upper caste zamindar families in her village (Rs 15000 from each lender).

As the prevailing system goes, in lieu of interest, she had to work as a labour for their cattle as well as house chores at nominal wages.

Her earnings would be adjusted against her principal amount every month. She will continue to work on the same wages until the entire loan is repaid.

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Two years on, she has been toiling hard all day, feeding and cleaning their cattle and also working as domestic help. Yet her loan liability is far from over. Neelam says more than 70% of her loan amount is still pending.

“It is because each house deducts just Rs 400 per month from the total outstanding, which amounts to not even Rs 15 per day,” she says.

Neelam with her daughters in her village in Aklia, Punjab. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Neelam says a registered MGNREGA worker in her village gets Rs 215 per day for eight hours’ job. “Here my whole day passes clearing their ‘Gohaa-Kura’ (scavenging cow dung and house chores). Yet I earn much less,” she adds painfully.

“Meri Mazboori Aa Ki Karze De Thale Aaye Hoyen Aaan, (It is my compulsion to continue working this way because I am under their debt),” she adds.

She says, “I took the loan specifically for their ‘Gohaa-Kura’ work. If I want to work outside, I will have to clear my debt first,” says Neelam.

Sometimes Neelam takes small advances, say Rs 200 or Rs 300, for some urgent medical or domestic use. It only ends up increasing her outstanding liability.

Bhola Singh, a local activist of Mansa-based Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, an outfit working on labourer issues, says that it is common in villages here to trap the poor labourers in debt and then keep them bondage for years in garb of cheap labour.

In Mansa, there are numerous such examples where debt is predominant factor in worrisome situation of poor Dalit families.

The catch here is that the loan once taken is not easily repaid since the poor are always short of resources due to low wages, and they continue to take more loans for their survival, and stay in bondage for years under rich lenders, he adds.

Also read: How Punjab’s Rural Women, Neck-Deep In Debt, Are Trapped in Microloan Cycles

Women worst affected

In 2017, Bathinda-based Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union conducted a survey about the debt on agricultural landless labourers in Punjab in the wake of state government’s refusal to write off their debt citing the lack of data.

A total 1,618 poor labourer families of 13 villages in six districts (Bathinda, Sri Muktsar Sahib, Faridkot, Moga, Sangrur and Jalandhar) were interviewed. The survey revealed that big peasants possessing 10 acres and above land were among the top lenders to the labourers, giving them loans in the garb of paying low daily wages.

As per the survey, the ultimate casualties of these loans were the women of these indebted families who spend their lives scavenging the dung or rubbish in the homes of landed peasants and landlords in lieu of the interest on the loan taken.

“This aspect shows labour power bound with the chains of feudal exploitation,” the survey added.

On why poor families are forced to raise loans, the survey said that employment in the agricultural sector has been hit hard by mechanisation. On account of this situation, the gap between the income of agricultural workers and the expenditure incurred by them has increased.

This condition has made the fulfillment of the basic needs of the agricultural workers impossible. Under these circumstances, the agricultural workers have been left with no option but to raise loans, the survey added.

The larger part of these loans, the survey added, were used by these borrowers to fulfil unavoidable circumstances arising out of dire necessities like to reconstruct the rooms and walls fallen during heavy rains, marriages of daughters, to construct additional room to cater the compelling need arising out the marriage of their sons or immediate medical treatments.

As per the survey, the debt on 1,364 families out of 1,618 families interviewed was Rs 12.47 crore, which amounts to Rs 91,437 per family. To their financial standard, this amount is huge, it added.

Neelam, who is under debt, is not alone in her village facing hardship.

Ranjit Kaur, in her late 50s, says that ever since she was married in this village she has been doing labour in the fields and houses of village lenders.

“Our problem is that the needs of the poor are unending and resources are very limited. Borrowing, therefore, has become an only option. We can’t overcome it until we earn enough resources for our daily needs,” she remarks.

Multidimensional issue

Professor Anupama of Patiala-based Punjabi University’s department of economics, who has extensively studied labour issues in Punjab, says that the exploitation of downtrodden women is the worst form of debt bondage in Punjab.

“There are instances where debt has passed from one generation to another as it remains unpaid in one life cycle of a borrower,” she adds.

On why this problem is prevalent, she says it is a multi-dimensional issue and has both economic and social reasons.

For instance, in farm economics, farmers have no control over input cost except labour that they can try to control. The rich farmers do it to keep their profit margin high while moderate or small farmers are under pressure to keep their input cost low due to wider questions of their sustainability.

The caste structure in Punjab also plays its role, she adds.

“The lenders are usually from upper caste families while labourers in Punjab comprise mostly Dalits who are predominantly rural by residence and dependent on farm labour for their livelihood,” says Anupama.

Punjab, as per 2010-11 population census, has highest percentage of Dalit population in the country that is 32% but it is the upper caste Jat Sikhs who have large landholdings while Dalits possess only 63,480 (6.02%) of the 1.1 million operational land holdings in the state. Of the 523,000 families living below the poverty line in Punjab, 321,000 (61.4%) are Dalits.

Anupama says whatever may be the circumstances, the dignity and livelihood of the labourers should not be comprised,

She adds the proper implementation of minimum wage system and enlarging the scope of national rural job guarantee under MGNREGA can somewhat help the poor labourers to overcome fiscal difficulties.

“In Punjab, both these things are grossly lacking. Average employability under MGNREGA in Punjab is less than 40 days a year, much less than stipulated 100 day job guarantee scheme. Then there are large discrepancies in roping in people who are really in need of work due to undue interference of sarpanches and petty corruption, she adds.

The working conditions are equally bad for landless labourers. There is no holiday for them. In case they are not well, their family members replace them for work.

Gurmail Singh, a farm labourer from Hasanpur village in Mansa, still remembers how he was beaten by his employer two years ago just because he did not report to work for a day due to death in his family.

There was a death in my wife’s family. I had to attend his Bhog ceremony in another village.

“Upon my return, I found that the employer took away my cattle as I did not report to work that day. On my way back home, I went to take it back. I was then mercilessly beaten,” says Gurmail Singh.  On his complaint, a police case was also slapped against his employers later.

Farm labourer Gurmail Singh (front) who was beaten by his employer. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Similarly, education is worst affected among landless labourers. Neelam’s married daughter could not study beyond class 8 as she often accompanied her mother to work.

As per Census 2011, the literacy rate among Scheduled Castes (SCs) in Punjab is 64.81% as compared to total literacy rate of 75.84% of the state and 73.00% of the country as a whole. The female literacy rate of SCs at 58.39% in the state also lags behind that of total 70.73% of the state.

Also read: What Financial Literacy Among Brick Kiln Workers Says About India’s Education System

Labour attachment practice creating new conflicts

In Punjab villages, hiring farm labourers for a year or more against a lump sum amount is a common practice.

The state labour department has fixed Rs 354 per day as minimum wages for farm labour.

Under this labour attachment practice, the employer bypasses the minimum wage system and makes the labourer work for a full year and extends the tenure further at much less wages.

This practice has, however, created a new set of complications between employers and their labourers.

Nikka Singh, an agricultural labourer from village Lalocha on Patiala-Sangrur road was roped in by a landed peasant for one year at a lump sum amount of Rs 85,000 in 2018.

Nikka says that he went on to work for him for over two and half years but the payment of his wages was staggered and there was no hike either.

“I was paid Rs 85,000 only once at the beginning of the contract. Later I never got full contractual wages,” says Nikka.

He adds, “When I asked for my wages and further hike in March this year, my employers claimed no pendency.”

“I left the job and a month later, my employer slapped a case against me under the Negotiable Instrument Act claiming that I had borrowed Rs 3.5 lakh from him,” he says.

“I had no knowledge of it. All I know is that my employer was using my bank account, my cheque book and my ATM too. They had deposited money many times in my account and withdrew it later,” said Nikka Singh.

“I am illiterate and had no idea of how loan liability was raised against me. I am sure the case was slapped against me because I left his job,” he says.

Father of two sons, he adds the court hearing is in August and he is in a lot of tension.

“I barely feed my family by doing odd labour jobs,” he adds.

This is not the lone case.

Sukhpal Singh aka Palla Singh of village Rala in Mansa’s Budhlada subdivision, needed money to marry off his two daughters.

A father of four daughters and one son, this compelled him to engage with village zamindar for a full one year for Rs 75,000. He says that there was no time limit in his contract. He was ought to do field work all day and night as needed.

Palla says his employer had 20 acres of land and he was the only labourer looking after his vast land and had a lot of field work.

During crop season, he even had to wake up at night to water the fields or look after the standing crop. The harvesting was even more time consuming.

Then he too had to grow cattle fodder and make it ready, he adds.

“My wife as well as kids too did their house chores under the same wages even though I was promised additional money for their labour,” says Palla.

He says, “I worked for them for nine months but one day, I got my ribs badly injured while injecting one of their cattle. This made me bed-ridden but I was constantly harassed by my employers to come back to work.”

“My son, 16, started working in my place but they were not satisfied with his work. When their harassment continued, I left for Mumbai where I stayed with my kin until I fully recovered.”

He adds, “But in my absence, my family was harassed. To my surprise, my employer slapped a case against my family that I borrowed Rs 2.55 lakh loan from them and did not return it on time.”

Farm labourer Palla Singh with his family. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Palla’s wife Jaswinder Kaur says that “in the last court hearing, we pleaded before the judge that we did not borrow any loan from them, rather it was a dispute arising out of my husband’s labour engagement. The matter is still pending but there is a constant tension,” she adds.

Palla said that what his employer did was that they obtained a plane cheque from his wife with her signature on it and then got it dishonoured with Rs 2.55 lakh. They later filed a court case under the Negotiable Instrument Act.

Jagseer Singh, who is secretary of non-government organisation (NGO), volunteer for Social Justice that is giving legal aid to Palla and his family, says that it has become quite a common practice to slap false court cases against labourers after contractual disputes.

“An employer does not want to lose his labourer since it is a cheaper arrangement. When he refuses to work with him and leaves his work, coercive methods are then put into play to pressurise him or as an act of vendetta,” says Jagseer.

In April this year, Jagseer got a fresh case from village Rampur Mander where a poor landless labourer Bawa Singh got a legal notice from his employer about a year after he left his work due to dispute over timely payment of wages.

Bawa says that he was promised Rs 90,000 per year of labour by a landed peasant of his village. “I just took Rs 30,000 as an advance. After a year and half of work, when I asked him to pay my pending labour wages, he kept lingering on.”

“I later left the job last year when I was not paid my wages. In April, I was sent a legal notice by my employer claiming that I borrowed money from him and did not pay it. It is pure harassment. I am the one who was not paid,” said Bawa Singh.

Jagseer, who is providing legal aid to Bawa, says that in Bawa’s case, his employer made him sign a paper after he hired him.

Later he used it to raise a ProNote or a promissory note and claim that Bawa had taken Rs 1 lakh loan from him and did not pay him on time.

“We recently submitted a reply on Bawa’s behalf in response to his employer’s legal notice, making it clear that it is a labour contractual dispute, not the case of loan default as it is claimed. We take it to a logical conclusion,” he added.

Also read: Far From Being Illegal, Slavery Isn’t a Crime in 94 Countries

Land reforms and debt waiver needed

As per Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union’s 2017 survey report, the entire debt of the agricultural workers, landless peasants and those who are unable to pay their debt be waived immediately as these debts have increased due to the discriminatory, blameworthy and blood sucking debt policies and practices.

The present Congress government in Punjab promised relief to the landless peasantry but the benefit of the debt relief is yet to reach them.

The survey also calls for the pressing need for radical land reforms to solve the problem of debt of the agricultural workers. The deficiency of land among the farm labour as well as the poor landless peasants should be fulfilled by distributing among them the surplus land above the present land ceiling (17.5 acres) and the Benami, barren and useless land by making it cultivable.

As per the report, appropriate steps should also be taken to establish agro-based and employment generating industries so that work can be provided to the labour power in the agrarian sector.

But the report has also summarised that the above mentioned policy-oriented suggestions to make the agricultural workers and landless peasants free of all their debts and to bring happiness in their lives cannot be expected to be fulfilled by the governments which are the representatives of the landlords, moneylenders and big industrialists, and lackeys of imperialism and anti-people political parties.

For this the need is to march forward on this path by organising a broad and united movement of agricultural workers and landless peasants and also taking along with it other working people tormented by the present governmental policies.

The story was done under Thomson Reuters Foundation Mentoring Program.

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