Monday, December 25

No Longer An Agrarian Economy

In the past decade and a half, nearly two lakh small farmers in the state have quit agriculture, according to National Census data, reports AMRITA CHAUDHRYin The Indian Express

He is just 30 years old but years of hard work has etched deep lines of pain on his face, ageing him by almost 10 years. This is Dara Singh, who, along with his brother Sukhdev Singh of Jallur village in Sangrur district, has lost all of his 20 acres to “meeting daily demands”. Both the brothers quit agriculture some three years ago and are now daily wagers. “The pride and self-respect that we had when we were farmers has been lost now. On a very good day, we make Rs 80-100 a day as we work as labourers on the farms of people who were once our neighbours,” he says.
Chander Shekhar, another farmer from Sadihari village in Sangrur, quit agriculture two years back and decided to start some kind of business in Rajasthan. He failed and is once again back in his village with nothing to do.
Tears roll down his faces as he tells his tale: “I got nothing from agriculture; could not even manage two square meals. I thought trading would be a good option. But from where do I get this huge capital to invest in trading? And, as they say, once a farmer, always a farmer. I have nothing to do now. Small farmers in Punjab are dying each day. Please help us.”
Even statistics support his claim. Nearly two lakh small farmers are missing from the state agriculture scene as per the National Census data for 2000-2001. As per the available figures for the Census 1990-1991, small farmers with land holdings less than two hectares were around five lakh in number. For the census 1995-1996, this number came down to 3.87 lakh. As per the latest figures available for 2000-2001, the number of small farmers owning less than two hectares of land is around 2.96 lakh. In short, in the past decade and a half, nearly two lakh small farmers in the state have quit agriculture.
“We are yet to study as to where these farmers have gone,” says well-known economist Dr P.S. Rangi, who is also a consultant with the State Farmers’ Commission.
He adds that this study has been given to Punjab Agricultural University, which has been told to complete it by March 31, 2007. “We want to know what are these farmers doing presently; has their lot improved after quitting agriculture or has it deteriorated further. Other aspects of this study will include as to what kind of profession have these farmers taken up currently,” he says.
Renowned economist Dr Sucha Singh Gill of Punjabi University, Patiala, says, “Firstly, it is never healthy to have such a large population, as we have in Punjab, totally dependent on one occupation. Seventy per cent of the population in Punjab is into farming. Now, it is no longer viable at least for the small farmers.”
He adds: “The NSSO figures say that in Punjab we have about 7.5 lakh families who make a living from dairy, so several farmers have made a parallel move from crops to dairy. There could be many who have become daily wagers or some who could have joined value-added services to agriculture, like that of milk processing and so on. We will have the details once the study is out.”
Dr. Sucha Singh Gill writes that the state is no longer an agrarian economy, technically speaking. An excerpt from an article 'A Futuristic View' in Seminar
In terms of the state domestic product, the share of agriculture and allied activities came down from 59.32% in 1970-71 to 39.74% in 2000-01. The share of workforce engaged in agriculture (cultivators and agricultural labourers) declined from 62.57 in 1971 to 39.36% in 2001. Thus agriculture no longer occupies a prominent position either in generating income or in providing employment. If these trends continue, agriculture will further lose in the coming decades. On the basis of past trends, it is expected that by 2021 the share of agriculture in Punjab’s income and employment will diminish to about 25%. This decline will be matched by a rising share of income and employment in the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy. Industry and service sectors have boundless potentials of growth unconstrained by availability of natural resources like land, mines, forestry, and so on.
The trend towards manufacturing and service sectors has been accompanied by a rapid urbanization of the state. In 1971 the share of rural population in Punjab was 76.3% which declined to 66.05% in 2001. If the same trend continues, a majority of Punjab’s population would be living in urban areas after 2035. The data also reveals that although 66.05% of the total population resides in rural areas, a large number of them are not engaged in agriculture. Up to 1991, more than 75% of the rural population was engaged in agriculture. But the 2001 Census brought out that 46.50% of the rural population is now engaged in non-agriculture activities.
The rising importance of non-agricultural activity in the rural areas should give a further boost to urbanization, transforming big villages into small towns and towns into cities. With the expansion of urban conglomerates, persons engaged in manufacturing and service sectors but living in the rural areas will migrate to cities in search of a better quality of life. Ludhiana district is already urban in nature. Jalandhar and Amritsar districts will soon join Ludhiana with a majority of people living in urban areas.

Friday, December 22

New face of Dalit Identity

Dalit activism has enabled the community to make some progress, but it is still subjected to oppression across the country, reports Frontline in its cover story 'Victims, Still', as ANNIE ZAIDItakes a recount of Punjab

"If you want to see the new face of Dalit identity in Punjab, look at the backs of motorcycles in Boota Mandi. Where once youngsters proudly sputtered round on bikes saying `poot jattan de' (sons of Jats), today it is `poot chamaran de' (sons of Chamars)," says Professor Ronki Ram, who teaches Political Science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He has just concluded a two-year study of the emerging socio-political situation of Dalits in places such as Dera Sach Khand at Ballan village near Jalandhar, and believes that the worm is turning, once again.
Early in the last century, when the Ad-dharmi movement took root in the State, the emphasis was on establishing an independent quamiyat (community identity), mazhab (religion) and majlis (organisation). While there may not be significant numbers of people lining up to convert to Ad-dharm, the call for a separate identity continues, although this is complicated, given that there are at least 38 sub-castes. But wherever Dalits have shaken off the economic ties binding them to upper castes, they seem determined to shake off the cultural yoke as well, by turning round the traditional burden of caste and wearing it on their sleeve. Increasingly, they are building their own places of worship too - Ravidasiya temples, Balmiki temples and what are described as "parallel gurdwaras" for Mazhabi Sikhs.

The Saint Ravidass temple on the campus of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh. pic by Akhilesh Kumar

At the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, the largest teaching hospital in the State, there are buildings representing each religion. A Sri Hari temple, a church, a mazaar, a gurdwara, a Ravidass temple and a Balmiki ashram which is under construction. Until 2003, all these structures were unauthorised. When the administration woke up to this fact and decided to bulldoze the structures, they began with the Ravidass temple. And they stopped there, for the howls of protest resounded all the way to Delhi. "It was not about the demolition of a temple. If they had bulldozed all the buildings, we would not have minded. But they began with the temple for Dalits, although the Sri Hari temple is the first in line from the road," said Ram Chander, general secretary of the temple trust. "Only some part of the church was also damaged, but they didn't dare touch the Hindu temple or the gurdwara."
As matters took a politically fraught turn, the land was allotted to the temple and the structures were all regularised. The Ravidass temple has been rebuilt and for now that is enough, says Ram Chander. "This is not just about a building. We want a place that is our own. This space serves as a platform, too, for the community to meet and talk and unite."
However, this wave of assertion is not indicative of Dalit well-being. Much of the defiance remains concentrated in the districts of the central Doaba region. Large parts of rural Punjab remain dependent on agriculture and the majority of Dalits remain landless, and thus at the mercy of upper caste landlords. At Asron village in Nawasheher district, for instance, though there were very few Jat households, none of the Dalit families had much land. Rattan Kaur, a widow, is landless. Of her four sons, only one finished his schooling. "They dropped out - in the fourth, or fifth or seventh."
There is a primary school in Asron, where most of the pupils are from poor families who cannot afford the Rs.300-a-month fees that private schools nearby charge. The nearest secondary government school is in Ropar town, which requires children to travel several kilometres on bicycles. Those who do not have bicycles cannot study further.
The major problem in the rural areas, however, is land and indebtedness. Says Professor Manjit Singh, who heads the Ambedkar Centre at Panjab University, "Dalits form nearly 33 per cent of the rural population, but own only 2.3 per cent of the land. Also, our studies show that at least 58 per cent of Dalit households are caught in debt traps; we estimate a total debt amounting to at least Rs.1,906 crores."
Frontline has recorded the rising unemployment and debt traps leading to bonded labour among Punjabi Dalits. Not much has changed. In fact, the situation may be getting worse. In 1991, S.Cs were estimated to account for at least 52 per cent of the State poverty statistic. This has now gone up to 62 per cent.
Manjit Singh points to research conducted across five districts by a scholar in the Sociology Department of Panjab University. It showed that 97 per cent of the agricultural labourers were from S.Cs and work participation was as low as 28.8 per cent. At least 20 per cent of the surveyed villagers agreed to work as "attached" labourers, which is half a step away from bondage. Studies have shown that although the spate of suicides in the past decade is commonly referred to as "farmer suicides", at least 30 per cent of the victims were landless labourers.
To nobody's surprise, the majority of landless Dalits are teetering on the edge and are just as vulnerable. "When you don't even own a patch of land to relieve yourself in, how can you raise your voice against the dominant castes?" asks Manjit Singh. "If you rear cattle, you need land to bring fodder from. If you are willing to work, you need a field to work in. Socio-economic boycott is an ever-present threat."
Most Dalit youth seek to escape deprivation and discrimination by going abroad. The only reason why Dalits in the Doaba region can afford to be more assertive is that they are economically independent, since many of the men work abroad and send money home.
While Punjab does not suffer from the purity-pollution severity of casteism, caste does play a role in the continuing socio-economic oppression of Dalits. The Malwa region remains largely feudal, a chilling reminder of which came in the form of the assault on Bant Singh of Jhabbar village in Mansa district, which led to his losing three limbs (`Casteist assault', Frontline, February 10, 2006). Once the tragic case captured national headlines, the subsequent pressure from activists and the media glare forced the government to pay compensation and make arrests.
Bant Singh was not an exception. Anil Kumar Lamdharia, an advocate in the High Court who deals with Dalit human rights violations, rattles out accounts of atrocities, each more horrifying than the previous one. He said: "In Ferozepur, about a year ago, a Dalit boy was forced to drink urine out of an upper caste person's jooti (shoe). In Ludhiana, a Dalit girl was raped, dismembered and thrown into a ditch. In Faridkot, a Balmiki boy was killed and his eyes were gouged out because he had dared to stare back. Incidentally, in this case, the police moved application 169 - which could lead to discharge without trial - citing lack of evidence on which to prosecute. Following protests, they withdrew the application. We are now demanding cancellation of bail."
According to Lamdharia, only those cases are heard of where the victim has the strength and the wherewithal to talk to lawyers. He told Frontline: "Half the time the police refuse to file an FIR. Yet, I don't know of even one person convicted under Section 4 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act? This Section makes the official culpable for not taking proper action."
The State administration, however, maintains that in Punjab atrocities against Dalits are rare. In police records, the total number of crimes against S.C.s in 2005-06 is only 101. It was 98 for 2002. Lakha Singh, Additional Director in the Department of Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, told Frontline that thanks to the Sikh gurus untouchability did not exist. He added that Dalits were increasingly misusing the Act and registering false cases.
Punjab has much to answer for. The conviction rate under the S.C./S.T. Act is practically nil. No district or village has been considered "sensitive" enough to ensure that steps are taken to prevent atrocities. Only 17 acres of surplus land was transferred to S.C.s this year and before that none at all. Of the 111 bonded labourers identified between 2001 and 2004, only four were rehabilitated. Although Rs.1,154 crores has been allotted for the development of S.C.s under the Special Component Plan, experience shows that the State rarely releases the entire amount. Last year, less than 45 per cent of the allocation was actually spent.
Political parties are not above blame either. The focus of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is Uttar Pradesh, though its founder, Kanshi Ram, hailed from Punjab. The oldest political voice of the Dalit movement, the Republican Party of India (RPI), Babasaheb Ambedkar's party, is a shambles. It shuffles along on the heels of a few dedicated old-timers who claim to be true to the Ambedkar legacy. Mukhtiar Singh Arshi, who heads the RPI unit in the State, said: "We are weakened because we cannot keep up with resource-intensive politics. Everything is about money. But we intend to make a concentrated bid for unity in the coming elections, especially with the breakaway factions of the BSP."
The breakaway factions are mostly the BSP's own doing. Leaders of the three factions - BSP (Kanshi Ram), BSP (Ambedkarite) and the Bahujan Samaj Morcha - blame Mayawati for neglecting Punjab and taking political decisions with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister's chair. Pawan Tinu, who was thrown out of the BSP for questioning the leadership, admitted that Dalit political activists' courage broke when Kanshi Ram died. But he was confident that they would regroup on a common platform.
Despite talk of uniting, none of the factions seems to have qualms about seeking a partnership with the Congress or the Akali Dal, both Jat-dominated parties, or the BJP, with whom they can share no ideological ground. One Dalit activist asked, "Why is [Shamsher Singh] Dullo [Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president] not the chief ministerial candidate? Surely, it is time."
Many activists and researchers believe that the conflict between Dalits and Jats is bound to worsen. With the emergence of a new Dalit identity that wants not just social-spiritual equality, but also a share of the economic and political pie, conflict is inevitable, and with it, possible violence.

Sunday, December 10

Landless in Punjab

Beyond the facade of prosperity in Punjab, lays hidden a grim tale of numerous landless workers, who are caught in a cycle of indebtedness and end up turning into bonded labourers, writes RAHUL PANDITA after a visit to Sangrur-Mansa belt

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 Bhukki (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 Bhukki 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.
(Rahul Pandita, a freelance journalist and a Sarai-CSDS Fellow, blogs at Sanity Sucks. This report first appeared in The Sunday Indian).

Tuesday, December 5

Most Polluted

Punjab's Mandi Gobindgarh has been ranked the country's most polluted city followed by Ludhiana, the Rajya Sabha was informed according to newspaper reports.
Union Minister of State for Environment Namo Narain Meena cited the central Pollution Control Board's air quality programme that found Mandi Gobindgarh in Fatehgarh Sahib district, had the highest levels of 250 Respirable Particulate Matter (RsPM)/ annual average concentration of 51 cities monitored last year. Ludhiana recorded 232 RsPM/ concentration.