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Punjab farmers protest away from tracks but Railways won’t run trains

The unprecedented stoppage of all train services in Punjab completed its 56th day on Friday. A total 2,352 passenger trains have been cancelled or diverted since farmers began a protest in September against the Centre's new farm laws.

Written by Rakhi Jagga, Avishek G Dastidar |
November 21, 2020 10:33:34 am
Punjab farmers protest, Punjab farm protests, Farm bills, farmers against farm laws, Punjab railways, Punjab rail blockade, indian express(File photo) Farmers protest outside the Shambhu railway station in Patiala on Thursday night. (Express Photo: Gurmeet Singh)

There has been no damage to railway property, and protesters are no longer sitting on the tracks — but Indian Railways insisted on Friday that services through Punjab would resume only after the state government provides an assurance of security to all trains.

The unprecedented stoppage of all train services in Punjab completed its 56th day on Friday. A total 2,352 passenger trains have been cancelled or diverted since farmers began a protest in September against the Centre’s new farm laws.

“Law and order is the subject of the state government. It is up to them how they want to deal with the protesters. We have said to the state government time and again that the tracks should be handed over to us to safely run all kinds of trains. That is the stand,” Arun Kumar, Director General of Railway Protection Force (RPF), who is in touch with his counterparts in Punjab Police, told The Indian Express.

For the Railways, as long as protesters were sitting in the vicinity of the tracks or on station premises, there was no guarantee they would not move to the tracks as a train approaches. “Many trains that carry our staff for maintenance and other duties look like passenger trains. We need to have the confidence that protesters will not harm them thinking they are passenger trains,” Kumar said.

Early on Friday morning, the parking area of Shambhu station in Patiala district was buzzing with activity. Protesting farmers from 10 unions have been camping in and around the station. A little after 4 am, 29 farmers took over protest duty as the shift changed.

Hazura Singh (57), block president of BKU (Rajewal) and chief organiser of the morcha in Shambhu, said they had descended on the tracks near the overbridge on October 1. In this early phase of the protest, farmers across Punjab had blocked the tracks for almost 21 days. “There was a lot of anger, and the crowd used to swell to over 5,000 during the day here,” Hazura said.

On October 21, 30 farmers’ unions decided to clear the tracks for goods trains, and the protesters moved to the platforms. Goods trains ran for three days before the Railways stopped them on October 24 on the plea that their staff feared for their safety.

Faced with an unprecedented situation, the state government urged the unions to clear the platforms as well. “On November 5 we moved to the parking lot, now we don’t ever enter the platform, not even to drink water. But the Railways still accuse us of obstructing trains,” Nathu Lal, former sarpanch of Gharma village, said.

To the Railway Ministry’s stand that they will run both the goods and passenger trains simultaneously, farmer Ranjit Singh said: “Kisan di mooch da sawaal hai (It’s a question of a farmer’s pride). Our leaders have already said that if they run goods trains, we will allow passenger trains the very next day, if not on the very same day.”

The Railways have in effect not changed their stand since November 6 when Chairman Railway Board V K Yadav said that running only goods trains as per the wishes of the protesters was not possible.

“Nowhere in the country can any state government or any other agency dictate terms to Railways. It is our network and we decide whether to run goods trains or passenger trains,” Yadav had said.

Railway Ministry sources privy to developments in Punjab said that protesters have offered that once goods train services are resumed, they would “start talks on letting passenger trains run too”.

“That kind of assurance does not give us the confidence to run trains. It will take only one instance of violence or one accident involving any protester for the entire thing to flare up. That is why we are waiting for the state government to give us an official assurance of complete security,” a senior Railway Ministry official said.

With the five thermal power plants in Punjab not getting coal, fertiliser supply has stopped, as has the evacuation of foodgrains from the state’s silos. Container operations, carrying material for export from the hosiery belt in Ludhiana, have stopped too.

The total loss to Northern Railway since September 24 has been Rs 891 crore, while for the Indian Railways, the total loss is estimated at Rs 2,220 crore, as per official data. A total of 3,850 freight trains could not be loaded, and 230 loaded freight trains are stranded outside Punjab. As many as 33 empty rakes and 96 locomotives are stuck in Punjab.

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