EVEN AS there has been much discussion in the farming sector around farmer suicides as well as their loan waiver, agricultural labourers are nowhere in the picture though the suicide rate of this section is higher than farmer suicides in Punjab. There is acute unemployment among farm labourers in Punjab due to reducing hours of manual labour in the fields with the introduction of new farm machinery, coming of weedicide sprays which left them almost unemployed.
“Even in the Dr Swaminathan Commission report, agricultural labourers were termed as ‘landless farmers’ and recommendations were made to give land to such landless farmers,” said general secretary of Punjab Khet Mazdoor (PKM) union, Lachhaman Singh Sewewala, adding that even the Punjab government in the run-up to the Assembly elections, had promised them to waive their loans too.
He said there were nearly 15 lakh agricultural labourer families across the state and almost all are under an average debt of Rs 70,036 against their average annual income of Rs 19,419.
“Earlier, farm labourers used to work round the year in the fields but now their labour hours reduced to one-third which led them to take loan for eating two time meals,” said Kashmir Kughshore, spokesperson of Pendu Mazdoor Union (PMU), another organisation of labourers in Punjab.
Prof Gian Singh, economics department, Punjabi University, Patiala who headed the team that undertook farmers’ and farm labourer debt survey in 2014-15, said a majority of farm labourers had taken loans just to ensure two meals a day because they are not getting work in the fields. “The farmers are putting costly sprays, which have harmful effects on soil, instead giving work to these poor labourer to clear weeds manually,” said he, adding that if poor labourer will clear the weeds and unwanted herbs from the fields it will help in both ways one the land will be free from the harmful effects of the chemical sprays, which are quite costly, and these poor labourers will get work.
Around 92 per cent of the farm labourers who are now debt-ridden have taken loans from non-institutional organisations, said Prof Gian Singh.
As per a survey report by the Punjab University, Patiala, 948 farm labourers against 781 farmers had committed suicide from 2000-2016 in seven districts of Punjab including Muktsar Sahib, Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala, Hoshiarpur, Rupnagar and SAS Nagar.
Meanwhile, labourers have launched protest under three organisations – PMU, PKM and Zameen Prapati Sangharsh Committee – across Punjab.