It is 6.30 am and the sun is starting to rise. The front cover of the tent has been removed. Inside, five farmers are still sleeping on mattresses. Outside, 2-3 others are pouring out steaming cups of tea.
This is the Ladhowal toll plaza protest site on NH-1, along the Ludhiana -Jalandhar-Amritsar road. This highway leads to Jammu as well.
Though farmers started their dharnas against the Centre’s farm laws at various toll plazas since October 1, here, it started on October 4.
Sunday was day 50 of the farmers’ dharna at this toll plaza, which generates the maximum collection in the state — Rs 75 lakh a day as per the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI). Going by this figure, this one protest site itself would have caused a loss of Rs 37 crore itself.
Ranjeet Singh, an 87-year-old farmer, is still lying in his quilt, slowly sipping tea from a steel glass as the sunlight trickles in and lights up his wrinkles. Back home, in his village Haripur Khalsa, he has 5 acres of land. “Don’t go by my age. I have been working in fields all my life and hence the cold does not bother me…in winters, I used to go to the fields at 5 am, while in summers, I would go at 4 am. A farmer’s body is built to handle such conditions, this is not at all an inconvenience. The greater matter of inconvenience is that the central government is not considering us as its own. Hence, 50 days have passed and we are still on roads.”
Surjeet Singh, 65, who is a district committee member of the Kirti Kisan Union with four acres’ land, has been bustling around since 6.30 am. Dressed in a jacket and trousers, he bites into a bakery biscuit while nursing his glass of tea. “Every day, farmers who sleep on the roadside change. Hence, one farmer normally does not get a second turn. A few however still keep on coming voluntarily. I come almost 3-4 days a week in the night, as does Ranjeet Singh. Last week, it rained and hence that night we slept in nearby gurdwara. We also have a trolley with a waterproof sheet over it as a standby arrangement. We use the washrooms at the gurdwara or the toll plaza. This dharna site has members from Jamhoori Kisan Sabha Punjab, Kirti Kisan Union, BKU (Kadian) and Government School Teacher Union,” he says.
A few kilometres ahead of this toll plaza, the territory of Jalandhar district starts where farmer unions are not as active because majority land owners have settled abroad and the ones working on contract on the NRIs’ land are not keen to be part of unions. Raj Kumar, 60, is a farmer from Bakhlam village of Phillaur, located in Jalandhar district. “In the morning, we are few in number, gathering starts by noon till 4 pm, when the stage is also set along with speeches. Now majority of us are busy in meetings at villages for Delhi Chalo morcha and hence stages are not being set at the toll plaza site these days.”
Meanwhile, Kamal Kumar, Amandeep Singh and Sukhdeep Singh enter the tent to have tea. The trio work at the toll plaza and have come for their morning shift. “We want the toll plazas to run, but at the same time, we also want farmers’ issues to be addressed. So far, they have been peaceful in their protests,” they say.
Jaskaran Singh, 25, a marginal farmer from Lohgarh village and Kamal Kumar, 35, from Bilga village of Jalandhar district, also slept overnight in the tent. Kamal says: “Now I have started living in Haibowal area of Ludhiana and I work in a company, but my parents do farming in Bilga village. I am a farmer at heart and hence, I am here to support this struggle.”
Asked how long this morcha will last, they say: “We are not ready to relent, Delhi should not take us lightly anymore. It is 8 am now, traffic on the road has increased and vehicles are crossing without paying any tax, all thanks to farmers who are sitting on dharna for the past 50 days. Toll plaza staff have also been paid their October salary and they hope November’s salary will also be paid as they are regularly coming to work as usual.”
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