No end to discrimination against Punjab’s Dalit women labourers, says study

A recent study examined 927 Dalit women labour households across four districts. A lot of them reeled under debt, faced sexual harassment 

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Friday 13 March 2020
Women labourers in Punjab. Credit: Adithyan PC

The plight of Dalit women in rural Punjab — from lack of access to education and healthcare to poor livelihood conditions — was documented  by a team of economic experts.

The recently released paper was titled Khise Khali, Thid Bhukhe, Tan Liran: Pendu Punjab De Dalit Aurat Mazdoor Parivaran Da Ik Sarvekhan (Empty pockets, hungry stomachs, tatters on body: A survey of Dalit women labour families of rural Punjab).

It examined 927 Dalit women labour households across four districts — Jalandhar, Amritsar, Mansa and Fatehgarh Sahib representing Doaba, Majha and Malwa regions — in 2016-17.

According to the analysis, more than three-fourths (76.48 per cent) of these women were aged between 30 and 59 years; more than two-thirds (72.82 per cent) were illiterate. Among the literate, majority studied up till primary level. Not a single Dalit woman labourer completed her graduation.

The analysis led by economic expert Gian Singh along with Dharampal, Gurinder Kaur, Veerpal Kaur and Jyoti outlined:

Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalit population in India and most of them are landless. The supply of labour, especially in the unorganised sector, comprise Dalits. The rural Dalit women, by dint of their hard work, contribute significantly both at the workplace and on domestic front. They toil in the fields at wages lower than those paid to men. They face systematic and structural discrimination for being a Dalit, woman and poor. Further, in rural Punjab, the issue relating to socio-economic conditions and political participation of Dalit woman labourers has not been acknowledged seriously.

The studied found that over 90.83 per cent lived in nuclear families and 29.34 per cent had six or more family members.

“This meant that a majority of them were unaware of the advantages of having a small family. Over 91.80 per cent lived in semi-pucca houses, most of which were in dilapidated condition,” the document stated.

According to the analysis, over 69.47 per cent households did not have separate kitchens. Though 83.60 per cent respondents had access to a bathroom and toilet, these were in dismal condition.

Over 10.90 per cent respondents did not have any source of potable water.

Further, 51.67 per cent started working before they turned 20. The study also found an inverse relationship between workplace distance and willingness to work.

About 91.91 per cent were not aware about standard working hours fixed under the Minimum Wages Act. Further, more than one-third of the respondents were being paid less than men for the same amount of work.

“Thus, the rights of Dalit woman labourers need to be protected under the various provisions of the Minimum Wages Act and the Equal Remuneration Act,” the document suggested.

Drugs impacted many such households, the study found. It underlined that majority male members in these households were addicted to drugs — about five per cent of the total consumption expenditure was incurred on them.

The document also pointed to poor healthcare facilities in the regions.

“High expenditure on healthcare has posed a serious challenge in all three regions, especially in Malwa. The public healthcare system has failed to meet the requirements of poor rural people. Thus, the government should not only provide primary health care institutions at the village level, but also multi-specialty hospitals,” it said.

About 93.42 per cent of Dalit women labourers were deprived of basic facilities at their workplace. The study suggested that government make it mandatory for employers to provide minimum basic facilities such as day care centres, first-aid, canteens and toilets to Dalit women labourers.

Some respondents complained about caste discrimination and sexual harassment. The document pointed out that this did not only violate their constitutional rights, but was against their dignity.

The study found that that Average Propensity to Consume (APC) of these households was more than unity and their consumption expenditure exceeded their income.

Such households had to take loans. Over 96.33 per cent of these households were reeling under debt. The average amount of debt per indebted household and per sampled household was Rs.54,342.98 and 52,378.03 respectively.

“The repaying capacity of Dalit women labour households was nil,” said Gian Singh.

He added, “It is disturbing that more than four-fifths of the total debt was incurred from non-institutional sources that charged exorbitant rates of interest. This can be tackled by arranging easy institutional credit for Dalit woman labourers. It would save them from exploitation.”

The study suggested that the Central and state governments take strong initiatives for generating sufficient employment opportunities and implementing policies meant to improve their economic condition. It sought setting up of agro-based small-scale industries in rural areas.

The document also touched upon the social dimensions impacting the economy of Dalit women labour households.

According to the study, 15 per cent of total consumption expenditure was incurred on socio-religious ceremonies. “On the surface, this proportion appeared to be larger. But we found the amount spent for this purpose was small. Expenditure on socio-religious ceremonies is the result of social compulsions and traditions, so the government must come forward to provide financial help. Community halls should be constructed and maintained in all villages,” it said.

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) played a crucial role in the lives of Dalit women labourers.

Labour hired under MNREGA were paid the most in Malwa (Rs 8,058.68), followed by Doaba (Rs 4,806.57) and Majha (Rs 3,641.72). It was stated that proper implementation of the scheme would improve their socio-economic condition.

All respondents were landless, therefore the need for land reforms in favour of Dalits was emphasised upon.

“In Sangrur’s Balad Kalan village, Dalit households took control of the village common land on lease-in basis, despite opposition. It happened under the aegis of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee. Now, Dalit women do not have to go to the fields of large farmers for fodder, vegetables, and food grains,” the study said.

Another suggestion was regarding strengthening of Public Distribution System (PDS).

The study revealed that 95.90 per cent respondents had no interest in politics and that a healthy socio- economic and political environment needed to be created to increase their participation.

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