Sandeep Singh: Dalit Farmers Fight Government To Save Livelihoods And The Mattewara Forest

Local residents are resisting the government’s purchase of Panchayati land as it is being prepared for industrial use and setting up manufacturing units near the Mattewara Forest

Sandeep Singh
August 25, 2021 | 3.5 min. read | Original Reporting

Last year, the Punjab government’s Greater Ludhiana Area Development Authority (GLADA) had bought more than 400 acres of land near the Mattewara Forest from Ludhiana’s Sekhowal village’s Gram Panchayat. However, local residents are ready to resist the government’s decision, as the land is being prepared for industrial use and setting up manufacturing units. 

Sekhowal is a village of Dalits and the acquired property is Panchayati land. Five acres of land used to be given on rent to every household of Sekhowal. Now that it is sold, Dalits have lost the right to till it. 

On June 21, GLADA came to take possession of the land, destroying standing crops and cattle fodder. Residents were powerless, as authorities came with a large number of Punjab Police personnel. Dalits complain that they fought hard to get the Panchayati land now being sold, and the government is stripping them of their livelihoods.

This is not the first time they have had to fight against the government for this land.  

Back in 1966, Dalits had come to the Mattewara area and worked hard to turn the barren landscape into cultivatable land. Shortly after that time, the Indian government was setting up nine potato farms across the country with help from the former Soviet Union. One of those farms was established on Sekhowal’s land, which was actually made cultivatable by Dalits. 

The Indian government’s move to set up the potato farm forced Dalits to approach the lower court, high court, and then the Supreme Court to regain rights to the land. 

90-year-old Kartar Singh remembers that fight.  

“The potato farms had snatched land from us and they tilled it for more than two decades. In 1976, with other villagers, I was arrested for demanding the right to till our land. We fought a legal battle against them and then we won the right to till our village’s Panchayati land.”

After the decades-long legal battle, Sekhowal village’s Panchayat got ownership of the land in 2014. Since then every household was given five acres of land on rent, which led to a dramatic improvement in the living standards of Dalit villagers. 

“After 2014 when we got the land back it completely changed our life,” Kartar Singh shares. “Before 2014, We used to work as daily wagers. It was tough to make two ends meet.” 

Now, Residents of Sekhowal are afraid that they will lose their land, their livelihood, and respect once again. 

A few days after GLADA destroyed their crops, Gurmeet Kaur, 40, told us, they “don’t have green cattle fodder for 15 buffaloes and cows.  The government is oppressing us.”

The government has improved some village infrastructure, such as new road upgrades, in anticipation of the land sale and the future manufacturing centre. 

“We want land. We do not need street lights and park swings here in our village. If they give us our land back, we can buy these things on our own. They should take street lights which they have put up here and give us our land back,” Gurmeet Kaur shares. 

The government’s actions have put immense financial pressure on the local Dalit community, which had originally sown the now destroyed samplings on loans. 

“Panchayat sold the village’s land during the lockdown. If they don’t give us our land back, we will be left with no option but to sell cattle and work as daily wagers,” she adds. 

The fear of retaliation stopped villagers from taking immediate action in June, however, they have now decided to stand up against the government, as Bakshish Singh explains. 

“We had sown pearl millet whose height was around four feet. GLADA came destroyed our millet. Now, we have transplanted paddy samplings into fields again post-sale. As land has already been sold by Panchayat to GLADA, they can’t lend it to us. We are doing farming without paying any rent in defiance.” 

Gurdev Singh had four and a half acres of land, he too is once again farming on Panchayati land without paying any rent. 

“I am doing farming. We have filed a case and challenged Panchayat’s sale agreement with GLADA. We are doing farming on Panchayati land on the basis that we have been farming this land since 2014,” he adds, “We will die but we won’t leave this land. I even told authorities that they would have to kill me if they want to stop us from doing farming on this land.”

Baaz reached out to GLADA for comment. GLADA Chief Administrator, Parminder Gill, shared that the project is being handled by the Punjab Urban Development Authority and Department of Industries, and that it cannot be said that the project is happening in Mattewara as the development is happening outside the area.

While Sekhowal’s residents are worried that they will lose the right to till their village’s Panchayati land, another fear is that the establishment of industrial units will adversely impact the local environment. 

The Mattewara Forest range is close to Sekhowal village’s Panchayati land. It is argued that industrial pollution will be a threat to birds and animals in the forest. Sekhowal village’s land also borders the Satluj river. Villagers maintain that the industrial units will release polluted water into the river if the land sale goes through. 

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Sandeep Singh hails from Machhiwara, Punjab. As an independent journalist, he has worked with many prominent Indian news organizations. Sandeep has been following the farmer’s protest in Punjab since its onset and traveled with them to Delhi. He spends most of his time at the Singhu border protest site. You can follow Sandeep on Twitter @Punyaab


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