Surrounded by fields of rice and mustard and studded with ponds and canals, Balad Kalan looks like any other village in Punjab. But what strikes a visitor are the rows of newly constructed or renovated houses in one part of the village. This area is dominated by Dalit Sikh households, and it is evident that prosperity has come their way.
What’s changed their lives is access to land, which they till together. The produce is distributed among the villagers. In 2014, the village spearheaded a successful agitation — through demonstrations, lawsuits and dharnas — that enabled Dalits in 100-odd villages to cultivate land that had legally been theirs for over 50 years, but was denied to them by the administration and sections of upper caste villagers. The success of the agitation meant that in 100-odd villages, after years of cultivating the land for upper caste farmers, the Dalits finally began tilling it for themselves.
However, on a cold winter morning in January this year, Balad Kalan (Sangrur district) woke up to find local administrators and investors inspecting its common land. The state government planned to acquire the common land of 35 villages to build multiple industrial parks in Sangrur. In Balad Kalan, Dalits would end up losing 120 acres.
After the Dalits, led by the five-year-old Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), an organisation that has undertaken a sustained struggle to claim land rights for the community, took out a series of rallies and protest marches, the government backed off. The officials insisted that they were merely conducting an initial survey, and if the villagers were not in favour of the project then only a part of the land would be acquired for industry. But the Dalit Sikh community is far from reassured.
“According to the Punjab Village Common Lands Act, 1961, Dalits have the right over one-third of common land. If the pool of land decreases, then land allotted to us will also decrease,” says ZPSC secretary Gurmukh Singh.
In Punjab, Dalits are entitled to two types of land — nazool land for those who migrated from Pakistan; and a third of the common land, or what is known as the panchayat land under the 1961 law.
The common land is auctioned annually by the revenue department with representation from the panchayat. The government sets a rate per acre, which is usually 15 per cent higher than that of the previous year.
Till 2014, villagers bid for the land in their individual capacity. This led to corrupt practices, with some Dalits bidding on behalf of upper caste people for monetary or other reasons.
After a prolonged struggle, Dalits in Sangrur forced the administration to change the auctioning process. The reserved land is auctioned to the community as a whole, and not individuals. A committee makes the bid and the Dalits jointly take care of the land and the harvest — the sond crop of the rainy season, comprising mainly rice, and the khari or winter crop, which is largely wheat.
“Land is everything in rural India and Dalits have been kept out of it from the beginning to ensure they only do menial jobs. It is common to see that even after they organise and claim their share, the land is taken away from them either by force or under some pretence,” says Vinay Ratan, the national president of Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission, a Dalit rights body based in Uttar Pradesh.
According to government figures, almost half of all Dalit households in India are landless. Only 15 per cent of Dalit households are landed, the 2015 Socio Economic Caste Census states. “We receive two or three calls every week from different parts of the country about some new resistance by Dalits, mostly regarding land,” Ratan adds.
Balad Kalan resident Rampal Singh played a central role in organising the struggle in his village. A sexagenarian today, he was in his 20s when Dalits first started demanding the land that was rightfully theirs. “We protested at the police station, were beaten up by the police and the goondas of upper castes,” he reminisces. The Dalits approached the High Court and then the Supreme Court (SC). In 2002, the SC ruled in their favour and asked the government to ensure that it got one-third of the land in the auctions.
But not much changed on the ground. Villagers say that upper castes members, in collusion with the authorities, took away the land from Dalits in exchange for small amounts of money. “The benefits never reached the Dalit community as a whole,” says ZPSC president Mukesh Maloud.
Until, that is, the 2014 agitations ensured that the Dalit villagers finally started getting the land regularly on an annual basis. The ZPSC, which was formed after a meeting of Dalit farmers in Badrukhan village of Sangrur district, has spearheaded the movement from the start.
Since 2014, in both Sangrur and Patiala districts, Dalits have been organising themselves under the ZPSC. The farmers point out that there were frequent street clashes between the Dalits and the upper castes as they fought their legal and administrative battles. Paid goons of the upper caste communities would attack the protesting farmers with rods and axes, and the Dalits would often retaliate with similar weapons.
But the battle, as academic R Ramakumar points out, was not just for land. “It was also for dignity,” says the professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Economies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “The area under common land is very small in India and rights over it will not transform the situation of Dalits. But this land is important for all stakeholders for various reasons. For Dalits, it is a symbol of resistance. Similarly, for the upper caste, say the Marathas in Maharashtra, it’s a matter of pride to not let Dalits acquire it,” Ramakumar says.
But in Balad Kalan, lives have changed and led to prosperity among Dalits, mostly belonging to the Ravidas and Valmiki communities. “After we successfully bid as a community during the auction, we could have divided the land and cultivated it as individual households, or we could have done it collectively. We chose the latter,” says Rampal Singh.
A village committee was formed to cultivate 120 acres owned by the 133 Dalit families in Balad Kalan. The 11-member committee, which includes Rampal Singh, is responsible for the cultivation.
“The committee manages the land and all related transactions. Men and women from our community work on the fields and get paid a daily wage. The remaining money, after deducting the input cost for the next year, is divided equally among all the families,” he says. Some land is earmarked for animal fodder.
The dividends have been rich — last year, each household got five quintals of cereal, one trolley of fodder (no figures are available in kilograms) and ₹4,000 in cash for the year. Regular income has increased, too, in the form of ₹300 as daily wage, substantially higher than the ₹80 they were paid for working on others’ land.
A government study has shown that community farming has greatly benefited Balad Kalan, and two other villages in Sangrur — Bhatiwal and Ghrachon.
“Earlier, they were dependent on the market for their daily needs. Now they get enough wheat or rice for a year’s consumption. Availability of animal fodder has led to healthier cattle, so there are milk products such as curd and buttermilk for the households,” says Satjeet Singh Tiwana, technical assistant in the statistics wing of the Punjab government’s agriculture department. He had conducted the study together with Baldev Singh, assistant professor of economics at Guru Kashi College in Talwandi Sabo.
Tiwana adds that these successes would not have been possible without the community’s collective effort. “Had the land been divided, every household would have had to till less than one acre, which would not yield much. As a collective, resources such as tractors and other equipment can be utilised efficiently,” he says.
Another offshoot is that, collectively, the 133 households have become an effective pressure group. “If you need to borrow input money from the market, it’s easier to do so for 120 acres, compared to 1 acre. The rate of interest is also low as the moneylender is giving a huge amount (as loan corpus). Cost of input material such as fertilisers is low because you are buying in bulk. Similarly, you can bargain for better prices when selling the produce,” Tiwana points out.
Collective bidding has also brought down the rates at the auctions. In 2017, land reserved for Dalits was auctioned for ₹20,000 per acre as against ₹50,000 per acre for the others. Collective bidding ensures that people don’t bid against each other, and keeps the price lower.
“This brings down our input cost further,” says Singh, showing his notebook which has every detail of the money earned and spent on the land.
Tiwana believes that the Dalits should now consider crop diversification. “Right now, the focus is on cereals and animal fodder. But they can reserve a portion for crops such as potatoes,” he says.
The Punjab government issued a notification in 2014 allowing for up to a 33-year land lease instead of annual auctions. The Dalits applied for this. However, for the time being, the government has agreed to grant a three-year lease. But the other communities have come out against it.
On July 2, Dalits in the villages of Tolewal, Moluwal and Dhaniwal were beaten up by upper caste members. First information reports have been filed by both sides, and the Dalit leaders point out that this is a new chapter in their struggle. The bidding has been stopped for now, which means that sowing will be delayed. This may lead to a weaker crop this year.
“Collective farming makes farming sustainable. We are less dependent on the market. This bothers those who have dominated land and circles of power till now,” says ZPSC’s Gurmukh Singh.
Jyotsna Singh is a Delhi-based writer