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Empty pockets, hungry stomachs: Punjab rural workers raise 'legitimate' demands

By Dr Gian Singh* 

A joint front of rural and farm labour organizations of Punjab will be holding a three-day protests in Patiala starting on August 9. Among the main demands of these groups are repeal of the Agriculture Act and the Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020, imposed by the Central government, strengthening the public distribution system, providing cheap ration, and repeal of anti-labour amendments to the labour laws.
Other demands include waiving all institutional and non-institutional loans incurred by workers and poor farmers and providing them with interest free and unsecured long term loans, providing land to the landless labourers, arranging compensation and jobs to the suicide victims, and allotment of plots of 10 marlas (302.5 sq yards) to the needy labourers.
There is also the demand for grant of Rs 5 lakh for construction of houses, allotment of plots already allotted, providing permanent employment to labourers, stopping privatization of government agencies, providing full year work and wages to the entire family under MGNREGA for Rs 600 per day, redistributing land among the landless, ensuring that one-third of the panchayat land is leased to the Dalits, ending social and governmental oppression of Dalits under caste oppression, and enhancing social security for the needy.
To study the debt and poverty of farmers and farm labourers in all the three agro-climatic zones of Punjab under the guidance of this author, a survey of 1,007 farmers and 301 farm labourer families from 27 villages of 27 development blocks was conducted for the year 2014-15. The survey revealed that as we move from the large peasantry to the marginal peasantry, the situation with regard to their debt and poverty is deteriorating.
According to the facts that have come to light regarding farm labourers, this is the lowest rung of the ladder of rural agricultural economy. The statistics and facts speak for themselves that the pockets of the farm labourers of Punjab are empty and their stomachs are hungry.
About 31 per cent of farm labour households are subsistence earners, 27 per cent are semi-earners and the remaining 48 per cent are dependent. Out of the farm labour households, 94.68 per cent belong to Scheduled Castes, 4.32 per cent to Backward Castes and only 1 per cent to general castes.
Of the farm labourers, 19.6 per cent live in unfinished houses, 72.43 per cent in semi-permanent houses and only 7.79 per cent in permanent houses. 41.2 per cent of the families of these workers do not have a bathroom and are forced to use public places for bathing. 42.06 per cent of these households are illiterate and only 2.7 per cent have completed graduation and 0.7 per cent have completed post-graduation level education. 23.28 per cent of these households are up to 15 years of age and 7.03 per cent are over 60 years of age. All the families surveyed are landless.
If we look at the pockets of the farm labour households, we find that the average annual income of a farm labour family in Punjab is Rs 81,452. The annual per capita income of farm labour families is Rs 16735 which works out to Rs 1,395 per month and Rs 46 per day.
To understand the statistics, facts, and hidden truths of the above survey for the hungry bellies of farm labourers, we need to know the level and structure of their consumption expenditure, the poverty in them, and the debts they incur. It will be useful to consider the level of, resources, interest rates and some other aspects related to their debt.
The annual consumption expenditure of farm families in Punjab is Rs 90,897. Farm families spend the most on non-durable goods (Rs 51,477). This is followed by spending on services, socio-religious rituals, and durable goods.
If we look at the consumption expenditure structure of the farm labour households, it is found that 56.63 per cent of the total expenditure is spent on non-sustainable items. Food is the most important commodity among non-sustainable items and an average farm labour household; 14.06 per cent of the total consumption expenditure is spent on food items. This is followed by milk and milk products and clothing at 11.56 per cent and 5.58 per cent, respectively.
An average farm worker family spends 18.62 per cent of total consumption expenditure on services. In services, the largest share (8.72 per cent) of the average farm worker household's consumption expenditure is on health services. The average farm household spends only 4.39 per cent on education. This is followed by spending on transportation, entertainment, and communications.
On an average, indebted farm labourers have a debt of Rs 68,330 per household, of which about 92 per cent is from non-institutional sources
An average farm worker family spends 16.43 per cent of total consumption expenditure on socio-religious rituals. The highest share (13.92 per cent) of socio-religious ceremonies is spent on weddings. An average farm worker household spends 8.32 per cent of its total consumption expenditure on sustainable goods. The largest share (5.67 per cent) of durable goods is spent on home construction, new room construction and home renovations.
The per capita annual consumption expenditure of farm labour families in Punjab is Rs 18,676. These families spend Rs 10,576 per person on non-sustainable items which comes to Rs 1,556 per month and Rs 51 per day.
From these figures it is clear that the level of consumption expenditure of farm labour households in Punjab is very low. Field surveys have revealed that these families use many of the products provided by the farmers in return for work. Sometimes these products are used by the farmers and later given to the farm labourers.
The most disturbing fact in this regard is that the farming families hand over their used clothes and other items to the farm labourers. Many of the durable items used by these families are already used (such as old bicycles, mopeds, scooters, chairs, utensils, etc.).
There are different definitions of the poverty line. One definition that no sensible person can disagree with is that those who cannot meet their basic needs are considered poor. The governments of most capitalist countries are not ready to adopt this definition. Working out of the poverty line definition in India on the basis of income and consumption, an expert group estimates, more than 82 per cent of households are forced to endure poverty.
Poverty forces farm labourers into debt trap. An average indebted farm labourer has a debt of Rs 68,330 per household, of which about 92 per cent is from non-institutional sources and the remaining 8 per cent is from institutional sources. Most of these households borrow to meet their consumer needs. 52.11 per cent loan per household is at 22 to 28 per cent interest rate and 3.86 per cent loan is at 29 per cent or more.
Although the debt burden of the farm labourers may seem small, considering the low level of income of this class, this debt is creating many untold problems for this them. Among these, problems are low wage labour, bonded labour, physical abuse of women, suicides, and political slavery.
Given the socio-economic conditions of the farming families in Punjab and the contribution of this section in the agricultural sector, any sane person would come to the conclusion that the demands of this section are quite legitimate which should be immediately accepted by the Central and State governments.
---
* Former Professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala

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