Punjab: What the Rift Between Farmers and Workers Over Wages Tells Us About Agrarian Distress

While farmworkers have extended support to the farmers' protest, the constantly simmering tensions between these two social groups are hard to ignore.

Mohali: Even as slogans of kisan-mazdoor ekta (farmer-worker unity) are being raised in the ongoing movement against the three agri-marketing laws, largely spearheaded by the landowning farmers, the actual participation of the Dalit agricultural labourers is negligible. It is argued, and rightly so, that farmworkers are daily wage earners and cannot be active participants in protests for days at a stretch. So their support is merely symbolic.

But even with this argument, the constantly simmering tensions between these two social groups are hard to ignore. A few weeks ago, their tussle in Punjab resurfaced when some village councils, which are often led by landowning Jat farmers, put a cap on the daily wage rate of labourers working on paddy fields.

One village capped the amount at Rs 2,600/acre and another village capped it at Rs 700/bigha (roughly 1/6th of an acre).

These arbitrary wage rates were naturally opposed by the workers. “Panchayats have no legal right to decide wage rates, this is the sheer exploitation of labour,” Lacchman Singh Swewala, leader of a labour union, told The Wire.

He, along with other Dalit labour unions, attacked the upper caste land-owning peasantry for using their support in the ongoing farm stir only to abandon them in their time of need. Following the opposition, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella group of farm unions that is spearheading the farmers’ protest, urged the panchayats in question to solve the matter internally.

According to the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) senior leader Sukhdev Singh Kokrikala, the issue was flared up by people on social media and wasn’t serious. “The matters have been resolved. We suspect some have done this to further their political motives,” he told The Wire.

The Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, in a press statement condemning the resolutions, even accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab of provoking the labourers against the peasantry.

“This politics of division among the peasantry and workers is a perfect fit for the Modi government and the opportunistic looting forces. Some feudal lords also hold sway over the BJP and they insist on enforcing panchayat resolutions against the workers,” the statement noted.

Such resolutions were passed last year too. They were passed not just in a couple of villages like this time, but in almost half of Punjab’s village council. But with a minimum wage rate regime in place, why does this fight over wage rates persist?

Each year, the paddy plantation season in Punjab provides a chance at employment for hundreds of agricultural labourers in the state. Even with the deployment of machinery on farms all around the year, the sowing of paddy is that one job which still requires a pair of human hands, full-time. Gurpal Singh, a Dalit agricultural labourer from the Chandbaja village near Faridkot, is grateful that no new mechanised invention has been able to replace his labour yet. “This is the only time we’re employed on the farm for over 10-12 days at a stretch and can earn consistently,” he told The Wire. During the rest of the year, Singh said he relies on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) work or sometimes comes to cities to work as a mistri or repairman.

A labourer drinks water while harvesting wheat crop at a field in Jhanpur village of the northern Indian state of Punjab April 18, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma

The wage rate for agriculture labourers as mandated by the labour department here is roughly around Rs 361/day, without meals. In the case of paddy plantation, agricultural labourers often get the job through a contract with the farm owner. But the contract doesn’t consider the minimum wage structure at all. Instead, these contracts are provided based on prices mutually agreed upon by the land-owning panchayat heads, who are often big farmers, and the agricultural labourers, among themselves. These negotiations are based on the ‘supply’ of labour in the given season. The more labour available, the lesser the wage.

In addition to domestic labourers, there are also migrant labourers who eager to get the job. Farm owners almost always prefer hiring migrant labourers who, in their desperate need of employment, often agree to cheaper rates, as low as Rs 2,600 per acre. Even if a minimum of eight people work on an acre each day, every person makes Rs 325/day. This, although less than the minimum wage, can add up to around Rs 1,625 per day for a family of five, including children, if all of them worked on the farm that day.

Utilising the labour of children is illegal, but the families themselves engage them in the work as it guarantees more money to the household, Lachhman Singh Sewewala from the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union said.

“The implementation of the minimum wage structure has not been widely demanded because agricultural labourers suffer from extreme unemployment. They can work in the fields only for a few days, so they’d like to make as much money as they can,” he said.

Because of the increasingly unviable economics of agriculture, the landowning farmers – a majority of whom own less than 10 acres of land – consistently try to keep their costs low. Since all other input costs are non-negotiable, they can only control the cost of labour.

“There are many costs we bear, especially diesel. A couple of years ago, we paid much less than what we pay now, it was around Rs 1,800/acre. But labour wages have gone up too. There’s only so much we can pay,” said Kulwinder Singh Chandigarhia, the village head of Taliyan. On the resolution passed by his village, he said that someone tried to “defame” them and no such decision to cap wages was taken by the council.

Last year, the visible shortage of migrant labour in the state because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown had resulted in a hike in wage rates. The price even reached as high as Rs 5,000/acre. In this case, the agricultural labourer ends up earning more than the minimum guaranteed wage.

From this, it is evident that the minimum wage dossier has not been implemented. If enforced in the manner it currently exists, it upsets both the farm owners and agricultural labourers. In addition, its enforcement is not monitored.

Professor Gian Singh from Punjabi University in Patiala says that the model of agriculture in India is that of economic growth and not economic development. “If the current agriculture system is not remunerative for the farmer, how can it be remunerative for the person who sits lowest on the socio-econimic ladder?” he argued.

“If agriculture isn’t made viable or labour wages aren’t rolled out in a properly calculated manner, then there seems to be no end to the cycle of agrarian distress,” he told The Wire.

Apart from the headline grabbing confrontations between agricultural labourers and land owners, especially during the paddy season, it is essentially the neglect faced by the agrarian sector which is laid bare, professor Singh said.

“The increasing use of herbicides, pesticides and machinery, on the one hand, has left the agricultural labourer with negligible employment opportunities. So they rely on this one season and take what they get. There must be a social security system to cushion both the farmers and the agricultural labourers, to help them escape this state of deep distress”, he added.