The Wage Rate Issue :  Battle Lines drawn between Farmers and Agricultural Labourers in Rural Punjab

landless farmers

In a democratic and peaceful struggle which started in 2020 and lasted for more than a year, farmers as well as agricultural labourers of Punjab had left no stone unturned in making their contribution to the best of their ability. Farmers, agricultural labourers, and many other working classes from most of the states of the country played their part in this struggle and this struggle became unique in the whole world. During the struggle, the speakers from the stages set up by the farmer and agricultural labour organizations shed light on various aspects of the objectives of the struggle and promised to solve the problems of the farmers as well as the problems of the agricultural labourers.

Battle lines have been drawn between farmers and agricultural labourers in three villages of Bathinda and Sangrur districts of Malwa for planting paddy and daily wages. Such a confrontation was also witnessed in 2020 and 2021 due to the shortage of migrant agricultural labourers in Punjab as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which was sensibly avoided by some progressive farmer and agricultural labour organizations. Such a confrontation was not expected after the significant contribution of the agricultural labourers in the farmer and agricultural labour struggle and the promises made by the leaders of various farmer organizations to protect the interests of the agricultural labourers.

According to newspaper reports, the panchayat of Mansa Kala village in Bathinda district had read out its decision in Gurudwara Sahib according to which rate of paddy planting has been fixed at Rs. 3500 per acre, daily wage rate at Rs. 300 for male labour and Rs. 250 per day for female labour, in addition to announcing a fine of Rs 5000 for violating the above decision. The agricultural labourers who don’t accept these wage rates should be prevented from going to the fields of farmers. In Daska village of Sangrur district, farmers have fixed paddy planting rate at Rs. 3500 per acre and those farmers who do not abide by this decision will be fined Rs. 20000. The daily wage in this village has been fixed at Rs. 350. The agricultural labourers of this village have decided to plant paddy at Rs. 6000 per acre and the wages of the agricultural labourers have been fixed at Rs. 500 per day and a fine of Rs 2000 will be imposed on the agricultural labourers who violate the above decision. In Chahlan Patti, another village in Sangrur district, the farmers have fixed paddy planting at Rs 3500. The farmers who will violate this decision will be fined Rs. 50000. The farmers have also announced a reward of Rs. 10000 to the person who will inform the violation of this decision.

It is not justifiable for the farmers of three villages in Bathinda and Sangrur district to make such decisions regarding the wage rates of agricultural labourers. It is not at all desirable to announce such decisions in Gurudwara Sahib, because Gurudwaras are common to all and prayers for the welfare of all (Sarbat) are offered in Gurudwaras. Sikhism also gives prominence to the message of “mouth of the poor, Guru ki Golak”. Understanding this message, setting a maximum wage rate for agricultural labourers in Gurudwara Sahib by the farmers is against the preachings of the Sikh Gurus and a shock to the poor agricultural labourers.

When the country was importing foodgrains from the United States under PL480 in the 1960s due to severe food shortage, the Government of India decided to introduce ‘New Agricultural Technology’ to overcome this problem. After studying different parts of the country, decision was taken to introduce this technology in Punjab. The courageous farmers, agricultural labourers, rural artisans, and the rich natural resources of Punjab were behind such a decision. Due to the hard work of the courageous farmers, agricultural labourers, rural artisans and excessive utilization of the rich natural resources of Punjab, the severe shortage of foodgrains in the country was overcome.

The ‘New Agricultural Technology’ was a package of high yielding seeds, assured irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, machinery, and modern farming methods. Initially due to the resources used in this package, the groundwater and the healthy soil of Punjab and the conducive agro-climatic environment for different crops increased the cropping intensity which in-turn increased the demand for labour. Due to the success of this technology, the Central Government to fulfill its targets of central pool of foodgrains imposed paddy crop on the farmers of Punjab from 1973 through the policy of Minimum Support Prices for agricultural commodities and assured government procurement. Paddy is not a suitable crop in terms of agro-climatic conditions of Punjab due to which agricultural labourers started coming to Punjab from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and some other states for planting this crop. Due to the low demand and the very low rates of wages for agricultural labour in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and some other states, a large number of migrant agricultural labourers from there have accepted  low wages in Punjab which has fatally affected the working days and wage rates of agricultural labourers in Punjab.

The wage rates of agricultural labourers in Punjab have been determined by the demand and supply of agricultural labourers. Although there has been some increase in wage rates over time, rising inflation has kept them from increasing their net wage rates. Different research studies have revealed the fact that there has been no increase in the net wage rates of agricultural labourers, rather these rates had decreased in most cases. Now, the demand for labourers for paddy plantation exceeds their supply, it is unreasonable in all respects to fix their maximum wage rates.

The poor socio-economic conditions and the poor political participation of the agricultural labourers of Punjab continue to bring out the major problems of these labourers from time to time. Various research studies conducted in Punjab have brought to light the fact that the pockets of the agricultural labourers are empty, their stomachs are hungry, ragged clothes on their bodies and besides these landless agricultural labourers are also falling prey to feudalistic mentality / thinking.

The use of herbicides and machinery in the package of  ‘New Agricultural Technology’ adopted in Punjab has reduced the employment days in the agricultural sector and in particular of the agricultural labourers. Prior to the adoption of this technology, the relationship between farmers and agricultural labourers was warmer than it is now. At that time, Sanjhi / Siri agricultural labour system was prevalent in most parts of Punjab. Sanjhi / Siri used to get a share in the agricultural production of farmers, even though at that time Saanjh / Seer was not fair under which the farmer got a very large share and Sanjhi / Siri got a very small share. But in spite of this, farmers helped them to the best of their ability during the difficult times. The commercial nature of the ‘New Agricultural Technology’ has hurt this warm relationship. While the use of herbicides and machinery has reduced the working days of agricultural labourers and either prevented an increase or reduced their net wage rates, now direct sowing of paddy to reduce agricultural costs and to come over the problem of groundwater depletion will further reduce their days of employment and income. There are very few employment opportunities in Punjab in the industrial and service sectors. Due to low employment in the agricultural sector, some rural labourers are going to work in nearby towns and cities, but most of them cannot find employment, they sit in the labour squares and eat dry bread brought from home with a small cup of purchased tea. Although 100 days employment is legally guaranteed under MGNREGA, rural labourers are facing many other problems besides getting very few days employment under MGNREGA. As a result, their net income is so low that their pockets remain empty.

Far from meeting all the basic necessities of life, these agricultural labourers have to borrow money to keep the stove burning for just two square meals a day, which takes the form of debt due to non-payment on time. Although this debt may seem small, it creates untold and unbearable problems for these landless agricultural labourers. Agricultural labourers have phones, but these phones are either low-priced or second hand. These phones have become a necessity for agricultural labourers to get connected with farmers for employment. Such is the case with some of these labourers having scooters. Some of these agricultural labourers also have chairs and tables or sofas in their homes, but they are also used by relatively high-income people. The clothes on the bodies of most of these agricultural labourers are worn-torn or handed down by relatively high-income people.

Although feudalism was legally abolished with the independence of the country, the feudal mentality / thinking of most of the farmers of Punjab seems to be humiliating the agricultural labourers in various respects. A recent example of this is the decisions taken by farmers in three villages in Bathinda and Sangrur districts regarding agricultural labourers.

Measures have to be taken by the Central and State Governments to overcome the various problems of Punjab’s agricultural labourers. It is important to ensure that the land acquired by the Punjab Government as a result of redemption of Panchayat lands in various villages of Punjab is given to the agricultural labourers for co-operative agriculture without taking any rent. Days of employment under MGNREGA should be increased according to the requirements of agricultural labourers and the wage rates should be at least equal to Minimum Wage Rates determined by the Central / State Governments. In addition, progressive organizations of farmers and agricultural labourers should come forward as in previous years to reduce the tension between farmers and agricultural labourers as was witnessed during the last two years.

Dr. Gian Singh is Former Professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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