Harpal Singh, 47, sarpanch of Pathlawa in Nawanshahr district, has been shuttling between the village and Delhi’s Singhu border for the past one month. “We are arranging langar for the protesting farmers,” says Harpal, the owner of 80 acres of land and a Dubai-based transport company.
On March 18, the country’s fourth coronavirus death had been reported from this village of 2,400 — that of a priest who had returned from abroad — setting off alarm bells among officials as Pathlawa is part of Nawanshahr’s NRI belt. Around 300 people from the village alone are settled abroad.
Now, the only conversation in Pathlawa is how to lend support to the farmers’ protest that is into its second month. “The Centre doesn’t seem to be bothered about the farmers’ demands. We are collecting contributions in cash and kind, including from NRIs from our village, such as rations, warm clothes, quilts, all other things the protesters might need,” says Sandeep Singh, a farmer, who himself was at the Singhu border for 10 days before returning Sunday, and is readying the items he will take along for the next round.
In the days following the death of the local gurdwara’s granthi on March 18, 14 coronavirus cases had been reported in Pathlawa, including sarpanch Harpal, all traced back to the priest, making it the first village in Punjab to be declared a ‘red zone’. From being one of the worst-affected districts in North India in March, Nawanshahr is now the second last among Punjab’s 22 districts. Its tally stands at 2,345 cases and 82 deaths. Pathlawa has had no new case in eight months.
Civil Surgeon, Nawanshahr, Dr Rajinder Bhatia says they are still testing around 800 to 1,000 people daily. “But now cases are very few. On December 27, we had just seven cases in the entire district.”
Sarabjit Kaur says she keeps the small general store she runs in Pathlawa open all days now, including Sundays. “But, when I go home, I ensure I wash my hands and face properly and change my clothes before any household work or meeting my children.”
Sukhwinder Singh, who runs a furniture business, says work re-started in June. “Now everything is usual. We hardly even wear masks, only when we go out of the village.”
The biggest confidence booster for Pathlawa was the opening of Gurudwara Sant Baba Ghaniya Singh on June 11. It had been sealed after the death of the granthi, Daljinder Singh. The 70-year-old had returned from a religious trip to Italy, then the worst-hit country, and had been going around the region delivering sermons, with his positive status becoming known only after his death. In the days that followed, as Pathlawa and neighbouring villages had been completely sealed, the priest had been denounced as a “super-spreader”.
“People, including from other villages, have started coming to the gurdwara now, but we ensure they wear masks,” says Daljinder Singh, a paathi at the gurdwara.
If Pathlawa needed another vote of normalcy, it has come from its NRIs. In the wake of the first coronavirus waves abroad, around 90,000 NRIs had returned to Punjab, as India was till then largely free of the virus. Once the lockdown was lifted, many returned. Now, they have started shuffling back and forth — like before. Prem Kumar came from the UK to Pathlawa last month, “without any hesitation”, he says, with plans to return in March.
Now, of course, there is a new twist in the tale. No one knows where the new UK variant that has prompted fresh curbs, including on flights, will lead. Hoping his plans won’t be derailed, Kumar says, “People are not as afraid now, here or in the UK, as they are more alert and take the necessary precautions… because no one knows when this pandemic will end.”