Sangrur, Mansa: It is around noon at the Sangrur railway station. While the railway tracks are empty, a makeshift tent beside the station plays host to hundreds of farmers — some seated inside, others just outside. On a small dias, farmer leaders lead rallying calls against the central government.
It is this arrangement that has become the flashpoint between the Punjab government and its farmers on one side and the Modi dispensation on the other.
While the farmers and the Punjab government insist that the protesters are off the tracks, the Indian Railways disputes this and adds that their presence beside the tracks is still a cause for concern.
“Tracks have not yet been vacated. Only 9 of 32 railway stations are now vacated,” D.J. Narain, additional director general, Ministry of Railways, told ThePrint Friday.
He also said that leaving the tracks alone is not enough. “Railways cannot start goods trains in a piecemeal manner. We need assurance that protesters will move out of not just tracks but stations,” Narain said. “We cannot afford trains starting from Delhi but being stopped at Bathinda for instance. In addition, if protests continue, any stray protester can walk onto tracks and that can lead to casualties.”
The Modi government had on 24 October suspended the movement of freight trains to Punjab citing the blockade. It also said that goods train movement will only resume after an assurance from Punjab on the safety of the railways.
This has had severe repercussions for Punjab.
Chief Minister Amarinder Singh took to Twitter on 1 November to allege a “rail blockade” by the Centre that he said was leading to “critical losses” to industry, agriculture and overall economy of the state.
My open letter to @BJP4India President @JPNadda to whom I am writing in a lot of pain over statements of some BJP national & Punjab leaders. Some of them even called our farmers "Naxal Forces”. I hope he will take note & respond like a statesman. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/z6BUAyQB8H
— Capt.Amarinder Singh (@capt_amarinder) November 1, 2020
The ‘rail blockade’ has led to a severe shortage of coal, which in turn has prompted the Punjab State Power Corporation Limitedto cut electricity for up to five hours a day across the state. It has also led to a shortage of fertilisers, raw material for industry and gunny bags for paddy procurement.
Farmers that ThePrint spoke to at these protest sites, however, insisted that their blockade of freight trains was lifted on 22 October. They said that they only congregate beside the railway stations every morning by 11am and wrap up their protest between 3 and 4pm.
On Friday, the 37th day of the protests, ThePrint had found that the farmers had moved their protest from the rail tracks to the platform and outside the main station in both Sangrur and Mansa districts.
“Our blockade of freight trains was lifted on 22 October. The centre is only making excuses to not start goods trains. The centre wants to humiliate us for protesting against the three farm bills,” Gurnam Singh, state secretary, Punjab Kisan Union told ThePrint at Mansa.
“They want to provoke us but Punjab’s farmers have never gotten violent and never will. We will continue our fight until the bills are revoked. We are ready for the long haul.”
Rail blockade impasse
When the three contentious farm bills were passed at the end of September, Punjab’s farmers had initiated rail and road blockades, stopped tax collection at toll plazas owned by corporates, shut down petrol pumps as well as two thermal power plants owned by private players.
But it is the blockade of the railway tracks that have become the bone of contention.
Protesters that ThePrint spoke to in both Sangrur and Mansa said that tracks have been empty for over a week now. “We decided to allow freight trains on 22 October. The tracks are empty. Why isn’t the government sending trains? The only reason is the government wants to put economic sanctions on us,” said Bhupender Singh Longwal, state convenor, Kirti Kisan Union, who was protesting at Sangrur.
Farmers said that they have allowed freight movement because they don’t want themselves to be deprived.
“80% paddy planting is already done for the season. Farmers need fertilisers like urea, DAP (diammonium phosphate) to grow paddy. These fertilisers are not available in Punjab and come from other states,” said Uddham Singh Santoshpura, member, state working committee, Jamuri Kisan Sabha. “By not allowing freight trains, the government wants farmers to suffer.”
Farmers also said that by blocking freight trains, the government is ensuring that even industries don’t work in Punjab. “All the big industries in Ludhiana, Jalandhar require raw materials that come from other states. If the material comes only then, things will get made. By stopping trains, the government wants to choke us economically,” Santoshpura said.
With the rail track blockade off, the protestors have decided to give time to the centre. “We will allow movement of freight trains but our toll plaza blockade will continue and on 25 November, lakhs of protesters from Punjab will march to Delhi to draw the centre’s attention,” said Rurdu Singh, Punjab Kisan Union chief.
“We have got the support of the people of Punjab and the government of Punjab. This protest will continue till the laws are revoked,” he added.
Why farmers are angry
The farmers are miffed at the three contentious farm legislation — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, which allows farmers to sell their produce outside Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) constituted by different state legislations. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, which allows contract farming and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act,2020, which deregulates the production, supply, distribution of food items like cereals, pulses, potatoes, onion and edible oilseeds.
Farmers that ThePrint spoke to said that the legislation not only deprives them of the fair MSP that was fixed by the state government but also allows their land to be taken away by private players.
“We have a system in Punjab in which the entire state functions as an APMC. We take our produce to the mandis and get a fair price fixed by the government,” said Gurnam Singh. “Mandis also build roads, give farmers compensation for any accidents that may occur while working on the fields. If mandis are dismantled who will take care of us?”
Farmers said that despite the central government’s assurance that the MSP system will continue, they want it extended to all crops. “Right now MSP is for only 23 crops, we want MSP for all crops and want the government to purchase rather than private players who will buy our produce at cheaper prices and not give us MSP,” said Longwal.
“We want the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to buy our produce. It’s the government’s responsibility to sell produce, not farmers,” said Santoshpura.