Hit hard by the suspension of rail services since September 24 amid protests by farmers against the Centre’s new agriculture laws, Punjab Friday slammed the Railways for claiming that its operations continue to be stalled by blocks in at least 22 locations by protesters.
While farmers’ unions said protesters have vacated all tracks and platforms, Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh said: “The (Railways) decision is obstructing movement of essential supplies not just in Punjab, which has run out of coal and power, and storage for foodgrains and fertiliser, but also to other states, including the armed forces in Ladakh and Kashmir.”
Punjab officials said the suspension, which is unprecedented in length and scale, has dealt a heavy blow to the state with the hosiery industry alone set to suffer losses totalling Rs 8,500 crore. They said the state is short of power, fertilisers, raw material and even gunny bags for paddy procurement, apart from the halt in movement of food grain and cotton to other states.
The face-off escalated Friday with Punjab saying that all platforms, where the farmers were protesting, “have been cleared for the plying of goods trains after the government persuaded the farmers’ unions”. However, the Rail Ministry accused the state of “misguiding by saying that all tracks are clear for movement of goods trains”.
The exchange came after farmers’ unions reiterated that they are open to let goods trains operate, but not passenger services till November 20. However, Railway Board chairman V K Yadav said the transporter “will not be able to pick and choose, and run selective trains”.
“We would like to run services of commodities as well as passenger trains together. As soon as the state government gives security clearance, we are ready to resume services. We are eager to run trains because this is also the festival season and there is heavy demand for special trains… (But) we want security clearance for all kinds of goods trains, coal, fertiliser, oil, etc., from the state government,” Yadav said.
Railways suspends services only on a case-to-case basis following security advice from states. While there was no such advice from Punjab, the Railways said it stopped operations because of the “threat perception”.
“Between October 22 and 29, upon advice from the Punjab government, we ran some goods trains. But they were stopped… One person jumped in front of a maintenance train and the driver had to apply the brakes at the last moment to avert a mishap. Also, we would want tracks to be in our control for maintenance… Our drivers and guards have given reports that they don’t feel safe running the trains in such a situation,” Yadav said.
However, farmers’ unions rejected these claims. “We had no objection to goods trains since October 21, but the Railways suspended operations despite the fact that we were sitting quietly at a few stations — one local line and two internal lines,” said Jagmohan Singh Patiala, working committee member of All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).
“The farmers have cleared all tracks and even the platforms where they had been staging dharnas. All the dharna points on platforms have been shifted outside or to locations at least 10m away from stations,” said Patiala, the AIKSCC leader.
But Railways sources said information provided by the Railway Protection Force (RPF) show that although the agitators have not damaged any property they remain within the “circulating area” of stations in 23 locations.
They also said when goods trains were restarted for a few days last month, protesters had blocked the entry and exit at power plants. Around 10-12 rakes deliver coal every day to five coal-based power plants in Punjab, they said.
But according to Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Ugrahan, the last of the tracks that have been cleared include internal lines at thermal plants in Talwandi Sabo and Rajpura.
Punjab officials said that while state-owned thermal plants, including those at Bathinda, Ropar and Lehra Mohabbat, have not been producing any power, the state was depending on production from Rajpura and Talwandi Sabo while purchasing power from other sources. “In case of Rajpura and Talwandi Sabo, only one unit each was functional till a few days ago. But last week, even these two thermal plants were shut down,” said an official.
A Venu Prasad, CMD, Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL), told The Indian Express that the utility was imposing power cuts of 3-4 hours since Tuesday. “We had to impose cuts as there was a gap between demand and supply. We are spending between Rs 10 crore and Rs 15 crore every day on purchasing power as all the public and private thermal power plants had shut down in the state due to non-availability of coal,” he said.
A state report on the economic impact stated that 60,000 bundles of bardana (gunny bags) were stuck between Delhi and Rajpura. “This is affecting the lifting of paddy, which is lying in the open,” said Punjab Food Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu.
The report stated that 1.5 lakh bundles of cotton for other states were also stuck and that godowns were overflowing. It said the state needed 4.50 lakh metric tonne of DAP (diammonium phosphate) and 10 lakh tonne of urea for wheat sowing for October, but has received only 56,000 MT of DAP and 66,000 MT of urea.
The Railways, meanwhile, said that 2,200 goods trains and over 1,300 passenger trains have been either diverted or cancelled, with the loss estimated at around Rs 1,300 crore.
D-G RPF Arun Kumar said that in the recent past, services have been halted on account of protests in Rajasthan and also in Punjab but for short durations. “It may be noted that in Punjab all possible routes stand impacted making movement in and out of the state technically non-feasible,” a Rail Ministry spokesperson said.
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