Beyond the facade of prosperity in Punjab, lays hidden a grim tale of numerous landless workers, who are caught in a cycle of indebtness and end up turning into bonded labourers.
On a clear, cold morning in Mansa in Punjab, hundreds of shadowy figures, most of them draped in torn, faded shawls, huddle at the town’s Labour chowk. 60-year-old Ajmer Singh rubs his hands together and lets out a sigh. His eyes, like that of everyone else, are fixed at the main road. Farmers, riding jeeps and tractors, would be coming any time to pick up men like Ajmer Singh for working in their fields. Even on a good day, only 60 percent of them will get work. Life is hard. But for Ajmer Singh, it is a bliss as compared to the life he was forced to lead for years in his village Nangal Khurd.
Ajmer Singh was caught in a viscious web of bonded labour after a farmer from his village employed him as contractual labourer for 12,000 rupees per annum. On less than 35 rupees a day, he worked seven days a week, for 12-14 hours every day. The day he was unable to come for work due to illness, the farmer would ask Ajmer Singh to pay a fine of 100 rupees. Within a year, he was also forced to take some loan from the farmer. Once caught in the debt trap, he was forced to work in the farmer’s fields for years, on a very low wage. “I worked day and night at his fields. Gradually, he asked me to bring my 15-year-old son along with me to work. There was not even a single hour of rest,” says Ajmer Singh. Three months ago, Ajmer Singh was lucky enough to be freed by labour activists. He earns 60-70 rupees a day now, working on a daily basis in farms. The minimum daily wage rate in Punjab is 97 rupees. But still Ajmer Singh is grateful for his recently-acquired freedom.
According to an estimate, there are at least on lakh workers in Punjab who are bonded labourers. Actually, these are contractual labourers who get caught in the debt trap and end up as bonded labourers. In Punjab, there is an increasing trend of hiring agricultural workers on a contractual basis, where they get an advanced payment of 12,000-18,000 rupees for the entire year. The poor workers end up borrowing small amounts for needs such as health care. The interest rate for such loans is a high as 60 percent per annum. As a result, the debt trap continues for years, sometimes passing on from one generation to another. In most of the cases, the other members of the family also get stuck.
Hameer Kaur was recently rescued from one such trap from her landlord’s house in Dindholi Kalan in Sangrur district. For 35 years, she was forced to work in the house of her landlord, which included domestic work and cleaning of cattle sheds and taking away dung. Her mother-in-law had taken a loan of 2,000 rupees from the landlord. The landlord, apart from making Hameer Kaur work for 35 years, forced her to bring her daughter-in-law also for work. This practice is well established throughout Punjab where generations inherit the family’s debt and work in the households of the moneylenders at very low wages to pay it off. “It is a never ending circle,” says Harbhagwan Singh, a labour activist, working in the Sangrur district.
According to a study conducted recently by the Sociology department of Punjab University, the worst cases of bonded labour in Punjab are found in the Malwa belt, which includes Bhatinda, Sangrur and Mansa districts. Most of these labourers are Scheduled castes, who hold only 2.34 percent of the land under cultivation in the entire state. There have been cases where the moneylending farmers have taken the houses of these labourers since there is no land to annex. Their livestock is also taken away and they end up living in open spaces or in community places like gurudwaras. “In most of such cases, the labourer’s family is too scared to go back. Even when we assure them that we will reclaim their houses for them, some of them just refuse out of fear,” says Bhagwant Singh Samaon, state secretary of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha.
The landlords have also devised another method to enslave landless labourers. They make labourers addicts of Bukki (Poppy Husk). “After consuming the drug, the labourers become oblivious to fatigue and work indefatigably in the farms of their landlords,” says Harbhagwan.
Janata Singh of Mansa’s Makha village was fed this drug regularly by his landlords. He worked day and night in their fields, while his wife worked worked at the landlord’s house. “They would give me a break of few hours on Gurupurab. For the rest of the time, throughout the year, I worked in a dazed state in their fields. I even slept in their fields,” says Janata Singh. “I would come home by midnight and by 4 am, they expected me back, for work in the cowsheds. I was deprived of sleep for years. I would fall asleep while cleaning the dung and then they hurled abuses at me,” says his wife.
“We know of cases where the labourers are given poppy husk as wages. The landlord often boils it along with a cup of tea and once the labourer is addicted, he is given large doses, the cost of which is deducted from his wages,” says Bhagwant.
Kala Singh was also fed Bukki by his landlords, while making him work in their fields. One day, while spraying pesticide, he got poisoned by it and had to be hospitalized. Kala Singh alleges that this made his landlords so angry that they got him arrested by the Police in a case of theft. “My landlord came drunk to my house and beat me up, while the Police looked on,” says Kala Singh.
There are many instances when such beatings turn fatal. 22-year-old Jarnail Singh of Khadiyal village in Sangrur district was allegedly beaten to death by his two landlords in November this year after he failed to turn up for work. His family members say that he was down with fever. According to them, Jarnail Singh’s landlords forcibly took him, as he lay feverish on his bed, to work in the fields. “A few hours later, they came home, telling us that Jarnail Singh had been poisoned while spraying pesticide in the fields. His landlords offered us one lakh rupees, urging us not to send his body for postmortem,” alleges a family member. After labour activists staged a dharna, the Police finally arrested the two accused on November 30.
Assembly elections are due in Punjab early next year and currently, the Punjab Chief Minister is busy touring the state, portraying it as a prosperous state where every household is able to dole out sarson da saag and makki ki roti for guests. The time has come now to look behind the facade of green revolution and ensure equal economic and social equations for all. Otherwise it would seem that the government itself is high on the husk of power.
(This report first appeared in The Sunday Indian).