Inside a classroom at the government senior secondary school, Gandhua, landlord Bhola Singh sits on a chair next to his siri (farm labourer) Maghar Singh, waiting for the bidding of 12 acres of Panchayat land reserved for SCs to start. Maghar Singh, who sits on a durrie, is the one who has come to make the bid. The other bidder is also farm labourer, Satpal Singh, who works in the fields of Bant Singh, Bhola’s brother.
For another bid for four acers of land in the same village, the bidder is Surjit Singh, a farm labourer who works in the fileds of one Mithu Singh. On Tuesday, these bidders were among over 40 villagers who had assembled for the annual auction of 44 acres of panchayat land for farming, out of which 16 acres was reserved for SCs. Total land went for auction at Rs 16.23 lakh against Rs 15.45 lakh during the last financial year.
The auction process was started by Rural Development and Panchayat Department across the state on Tuesday and it will be held in phases in all the villages of Punjab before the paddy sowing season, revealed panchayat department officials. In Gandhua, 12 acres land was allotted to Satpal Singh who gave the highest bid of Rs Rs 3.42 lakhs for this chunk. Interestingly, Maghar Singh and Surjit Singh — farm labourers working in the fields of brothers Bhola Singh and Bant Singh — were the only bidders. Bhola and Bant are landlords of the village having 15 acres land each for farming. Last year, bid had gone in name of Maghar Singh.
Before the start of bidding, Bhola Singh told The Indian Express, “I will tell my labourer to bid for me. This chunk of land of 12 acres is being managed by me and my brother Bant Singh for the past four years. We cannot give bid as it is reserved.” Before bidding, Bhola said that he wasn’t sure who would come for the bidding from his farm. Surjit Singh was another SC bidder who wanted to give bid for four acres land which went for Rs 1.55 lakh, while this year’s reserve price was Rs 1.63 lakhs. The bid closed lower as Surjit’s landlord Mithu Singh repeatedly intervened claiming that the land was not fertile. All bidders had deposited Rs 10,000 as security deposit to give bid.
After the bidding process, both Satpal and Surjit said that they will be ploughing the land themselves, but when asked as to who will pay the auction money they said that their “landlords will pay that amount before leaving the place”. It is often alleged that that landlords field their SC labourers as bidders against land reserved for SCs as bid for reserved land goes at cheaper rates and hence it suits the landlords. In return, labourers are allegedly given work at the same fields and also given interest free loan in some cases.
In another village Maradkhera, 3.5 acres of land reserved for SC community was allotted to Darshan Singh, who works as a labourer in the fields of landlord Ramandeep Singh. Sukhchain Singh, Block Development Panchayat Officer (BDPO) who conducted the bids, said, “The bidding happened in front of the whole village and it happened in an amicable manner. An SC individual gave the bid and land was allotted to an SC only. If they take monetary help from someone, it is their own arrangement. However, we have told them that if someone else will be found doing farming over it, we will take the land in our possession.”
The issue of dummy candidates being put up to claim reserved land on auction is an issue often raised by Zamin Prapati Sangrash Committee (ZPSC) active in the state. ZPSC members, however, were not present in this village Tuesday morning.