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Punjab Dalit farm workers protest, seek higher wage rates, better compensation

By Harsh Thakor*
 
Ten agricultural labourer unions of Punjab, under the umbrella of Sanjha Punjab Morcha, swarmed in front of Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann’s residence in Sangrur’s Dreamland Colony on September 12. They defied the imposition of Section 144 orders and notices issued to them to launch on a 72-hour dharna in front of the Punjab Chief Minister’s residence.
The protestors marched for 250 metres on the Sangrur-Patiala Highway before they were diverted by the police. A huge police barricade was installed to obstruct the rally. Even a fire brigade was present as a precaution.
Over 5,000 labourers converged. Organisations participating included the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, the Pendu Mazdoor Union, the Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union, the Zameen Prapt Sangharsh Commitee, and the Dhati Mazdoor Sabha.BKU Ugrahan, Punjab’s largest farmer union, offered its support to the dharna.
Scenes of protests outside the Dreamland Society are a routine feature ever since Mann was sworn-in as the Chief Minister of the state, with a heavy police barricade always present.
Mukesh Malaud, president of Zamin Prapti Sangrash Committee, one of the ten groups that launched Monday’s protest, said, “The district administration has imposed Section 144 in the city after our protest call. They even sent us notices stating that we had not taken prior permission for our protests and if any law and order problem is created, action will be taken against us, as per law.”
The farm labourers from across the state came in buses and tempos. Some others chose to march on foot to reach Sangrur. None of them were stopped despite prohibitory orders.
The dharna was staged for two days on the Sangrur-Patiala main highway opposite the Dreamland Colony’s gate. They left a passage for colony residents to enter and exit the colony. Apart from Mann, who occasionally visits his Dreamland Colony residence, around 100 other people live there.
Tarsem Peter, president of Pendu Khet Mazdoor Union, said, “We came from Doaba along with our supporters in our vehicles. It seems like the Aam Aadmi Party is acting as the B team of the BJP as they are trying to muffle our voice by stopping us from organising peaceful protests for putting forth genuine demands. But we defied their diktats.”
Tarsem Peter -- along with two other leaders Lakhveer Longowal of the Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union and  Bhagwant Samaon -- touched upon how even after being officially awarded the Dalit community is denied fair rate for being granted land, with debts not revoked.
Zameen Prapt Sangharsh Commitee convenor Mukesh Mulaudh and Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union president Zora Singh Nasrali depicted how the administration retracted on it’s notification in 2018 and made a pretence  of transaction of dalit rights by undertaking dummy auctioning, forcing agricultural labour to procure land at exorbitant rates.
The dharna was staged for two days on the Sangrur-Patiala main highway near the chief minister's residence in Sangrur
Listing demands, Zora Singh Nasrali, president of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, said, “Last year, the cotton crop in south west Punjab was damaged due to attack of pink bollworm and white fly. The then Congress government had announced 10% total compensation to farm labourers. Till date no money has received.”
The other main demands listed included increase in NREGA daily wages to Rs 700, and one third of panchayat land meant for agriculture be given to actual Dalit families instead of dummy candidates fielded by landlords. 
On countless occasions, it was noted, the government has not kept its word and patronised the dummy auctioning of land and revoking allocation of plots, giving upper caste lobby hegemony. In spite of repeated talks with the chief minister, virtually none of the issues have been heeded to.
An elderly woman, Satwant Kuar, alleged that officials concerned deliberately rejected her case for a financial aid of RS 3 Lakh. Baljeet Kaur narrated that the officials never check the official documents before rejecting cases.
One of the highlights of the 2nd day was the wrath expressed by women who were wives of suicide victims for receiving no compensation. In spite of submitting all documents and completing proceedings, families of many suicide victims caused by debts have not received financial aid of ex-gratia relief of Rs 3 Lakh. It illustrates complete apathy of the government.
A perfect example was the case of Basant Kaur who after the death of her husband in 2016 failing to pay debt of 2.5 lakh, received no financial help, with the loan incurred intensifying. The government apparatus has been virtually render ineffective at the district level.
“My husband ended his life in 2016 after he failed to repay the debt of Rs 2.50 lakh. He had taken a loan to build a one-room house. I have visited all senior officials concerned and submitted the required documents, but haven’t received any financial help from the government to date. Even the loan amount is increasing,” said Basant Kaur, a woman protesting near the CM’s residence here.
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*Freelance journalist who has covered mass movements around India, particularly Punjab

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