The Centre and Punjab were on a collision course Saturday after the Indian Railways hardened its stand and refused to run only goods trains in the state, citing operational and safety issues in view of farmer protests.
Punjab minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, head of the cabinet committee constituted by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to hold talks with the agitating farmers, targeted the Prime Minister and said, “The Centre wants to create law and order problems in Punjab, and wants all Punjabis to leave the state and go to Pakistan.”
Randhawa represents the border constituency of Dera Baba Nanak. His remarks came hours after Railway Board chairman V K Yadav said protesters on the ground, while not blocking the tracks, were asking Railways to run only goods trains, something that the transporter was not willing to do.
Congress MPs from Punjab met Union Home Minister Amit Shah Saturday and sought, among other things, restoration of rail traffic in the state. The MPs described the meeting as “cordial”.
Jasbir Singh Gill ‘Dimpa’, one of the MPs, told The Indian Express that the Union Home Minister had assured the delegation that the concerns of the state would soon be addressed. He said Railways Minister Piyush Goyal was also present at the meeting.
“Shah heard us out and we are hopeful that the state’s issues will be addressed soon. He assured us that train traffic will be restored soon,” he said.
Board chairman Yadav said the protesters were sitting outside 22 railways stations. “At one station, they are within the station premises. They are telling our station masters that we should only run goods trains, and if we run passenger trains, then they will once again block the tracks.”
“In such a scenario, our operating staff have conveyed that they do not have the confidence of safety to run trains,” he said.
“We got a misguiding message from the state government on Friday that tracks were all clear for operation of goods trains. This message was similar to what protesters on the grounds have been saying,” he said.
“It does not work like that. We are not getting any assurance from the state government that there will be safety and security if we resume operations,” he said.
The Railways, the board chairman said, had tried running only goods trains on October 22 but protesters kept blocking operations. “We immediately started goods trains then. But some major mishaps were averted, so we do not want to do that experiment again. Imagine what will happen if even one protester gets run over by a train. We cannot go on clarifying to protesters along the way what kind of trains we are running,” he said.
Yadav said neither state governments anywhere nor protesters can tell Railways which kind of trains to run where. “If we start running trains according to where state governments want us, then people from every corner of the country will start telling us how to run which trains and where. The Indian Railways system will get destroyed. Not just in Punjab, it is not possible to do it anywhere in the country.”
He said such a request was not operationally feasible. “We tried to run only goods trains between October 22 and 24, but it was not possible from the safety and security point of view.”
“This is not ego or politics. We merely want our tracks cleared, so we can run trains freely,” he said.
He said goods trains carrying supplies to the armed forces in Kashmir were unable to move because of the blockade. “Good trains carrying coal, fertiliser, petroleum products are waiting outside Punjab. Food grains in Punjab are awaiting clearance,” he said.
Piyush Goyal, in Twitter posts, said: “Urge Punjab Govt to ensure full safety and security of entire Railways system and allow running of all trains through and to Punjab so that goods and passenger trains can serve the people of Punjab.”
“Operationally important that all tracks, stations & Railway property are clear for safety of passengers, Railway staff & infrastructure. People of Punjab want to travel for festivals like Chhath Puja, Diwali & Gurupurab,” he said.
Punjab minister Randhawa said he does not know what the Centre is up to. “But they are playing a dangerous game. He (the Prime Minister) belongs to Gujarat, the land of Mahatma Gandhi who taught us non-violence.”
“Until now, only the farmers were on the streets. Now, everybody will come out on the streets as the state is moving towards a blackout, industry is shutting down, workers are losing jobs, farmers do not have fertilisers for the wheat crop. It is a sad state of affairs. We are moving towards very difficult times,” he said.
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