November 22, 2020 9:56:30 am
THE nearly two-month-long train blockade in Punjab looks set to end, after farmer unions said they would allow movement of both passenger and goods trains starting Monday evening, following a meeting with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Saturday. However, they said they were suspending their agitation for only 15 days, and would resume if the Centre did not meet their representatives regarding the new farm laws.
A government statement said the farmers had acceded to the CM’s appeal to allow both passenger and goods trains. The farmer leaders said they would continue with their plans to “lay siege to Delhi” on November 26-27.
Arun Kumar, the Director General of the Railway Protection Force, told The Sunday Express, “We are in touch with the state government. We are making arrangements to run trains from Monday. If we get the assurance that everything will be fine, we are ready to run (trains).”
A Railway Ministry spokesperson said they had received a communication from Punjab that “tracks are now clear for train operations”. “The Railways will take steps towards restoration of train services at the earliest after undertaking the necessary maintenance checks and completing other protocols.”
Announcing the decision to allow all trains, Bharti Kisan Union (Rajewal) president Balbir Singh Rajewal urged political parties in Punjab to support them in their fight against the farm laws, and not let the issue be politicised.
Thanking the farmers, Amarinder Singh said he would meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah on their behalf. “Let us together put pressure on the Centre to see our point of view and understand how these laws would ruin Punjab,” he said, asserting that he was with the farmers in their fight. “We all have farmer blood in our veins.”
Darshan Pal, state president of the Krantikari Kisan Union, who was at the meeting with the CM, said, “We have only lifted the rail blockade. The rest of the agitation will continue.”
He said it would take time for them to get the message across to farmers’ organisations sitting in the precincts of railway stations across the state, and for the latter to collect their belongings and leave, which is why they had given Monday evening as the time to the government.
The farmers have been claiming that they have not blocked any tracks, and that they would allow only goods trains till their demands regarding farm laws were met. The Centre, however, maintained that it wouldn’t clear goods trains if passenger trains weren’t allowed as well. The farmers saw the Centre’s stand, which has hindered the supply of essential supplies to Punjab and hit its industries, as a tactic to force their hand.
The ‘rail roko’ movement against the three Central farm laws was started by the farmers on September 24. After talks with the state government, they had lifted the blockade for goods trains on October 21. A state government team including senior ministers and later officers had failed so far in getting them to agree to passenger trains.
The Punjab government got the farmers to relent by urging them that the continuing blockade was leading to rising resentment among the public. All the thermal plants in the state have been forced shut as they have run out of coal, while the farmers themselves are facing a severe shortage of fertilisers, especially urea, which is threatening their wheat crop. The industry, just emerging from the Covid setback, is estimated to have suffered losses to the tune of Rs 30,000 crore in this two-month period, with Amarinder Singh claiming on Saturday that six lakh migrant workers had left due to units shutting down. Over 13,500 containers carrying export materials alone are stranded at Dhandari Dry Port in Ludhiana.
The blockade has also impacted the supply of 40 lakh metric tonnes of parboiled rice from Punjab to Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh for PDS distribution, with Punjab’s silos full with foodgrains.
Singh said the rail blockade was also impacting urgent Army supplies to the Valley and Leh-Ladakh.
Darshan Pal said they didn’t want to inconvenience anyone, and were hence conceding on the issue of trains while continuing their agitation. “For now, we have the support of the common people. But industrialists are suffering due to disruption in the supply of raw material, labourers are losing jobs.”
At least one farmer organisation, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee that is protesting on the Amritsar-Delhi tracks near Jandiala Guru, Amritsar, however, said it would not backtrack. “We will not let any passenger trains resume,” said Sawarn Pandher, the leader of the committee that had earlier too boycotted meetings with Central ministers and officers.
Amarinder Singh promised to look into other demands of farmers as well, including relating to sugarcane price hike and clearance of dues, as well as withdrawal of FIRs registered in stubble burning cases.
Welcoming the decision by the farmers, Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar exhorted all parties to work together in their interest and that of the state. “We will not allow Punjab to burn, we will not allow the BJP to divide us on rural-urban or religious lines,” he said.
Since the Punjab deadlock began, 2,352 passenger trains have been either cancelled or diverted, while 3,850 freight trains could not be loaded and 230 loaded freight trains remain stranded outside the state. The total loss to the Railways since September 24 is estimated at Rs 2,220 crore.
The high cost of a blockade
The two-month-long rail blockade has meant all the thermal plants in the state have been forced shut due to the lack of coal, shortage of fertilisers even as silos overflow with grains, Rs 30,000 crore loss to the Covid-hit Punjab industry, Rs 2,200 crore loss to the Railways, as well as an impact on Army supplies.
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