SUSPENSION OF railway traffic to Punjab since September 24 amid the farmers’ agitation against the Centre’s farm laws has left the state gasping for power, fertilisers and raw material for industry and gunny bags for paddy procurement, besides bringing to a halt the movement of food grains and cotton to other states.
The unprecedented blockade has dealt a heavy blow to the industry, with the hosiery industry alone set to suffer a loss of Rs 8,500 crore. Steel units in Mandi Gobindgarh are also gasping for breath, with the largest unit already shut down.
Questioning the rationale behind the Centre’s refusal to allow trains to ply in Punjab, Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh said, “The decision is obstructing movement of essential supplies not just in Punjab, which has run out of coal and power, storage for foodgrains and fertiliser, but also to other states, including the armed forces in Ladakh and Kashmir.”
The Railways first suspended trains when farmer unions announced their agitation on September 24, and decided to lay siege to railway tracks at 33 locations in the state. But gradually, following talks with the state government, they started clearing the tracks in phases and lifted their dharnas from all but three locations by October 22, promising that they would allow passage of goods trains on all tracks in the state.
The Railways restored goods train traffic and 173 goods trains arrived in the state on October 22 and 23, before suspending the same again on October 24. The Centre claimed that several trains were stopped on the tracks on October 22, a charge vehemently denied by farmer unions who stated that no train was stopped and only activists of BKU (Ugrahan) were squatting on two private railway lines leading to the L&T Thermal Plant in Rajpura and Vedanta Thermal Plant at Talwandi Sabo. This was a symbolic protest against corporates by farmers, but it did not affect railway traffic on the main lines. Another farmers’ outfit, Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, was sitting on a dharna at Jandiala near Amritsar. This was also not the main line.
Darshan Pal, a farmer leader of the Krantikari Kisan Union, said the Centre was blaming farmers even though they had cleared all train tracks on October 22 itself. BKU (Ugrahan) had finally lifted the dharnas from the two points on Thursday after the state government had a dialogue with them on the plea that the Centre was using their dharna as an “excuse” to “teach Punjab a lesson” by way of “economic blockade” in the form of suspension of railways.
While state-owned thermal plants including those at Bathinda, Ropar and Lehra Mohabbat have not been producing any power, the government was depending on production from Rajpura and Talwandi Sabo thermal plants while purchasing power from other sources. The Goindwal Thermal Plant had also shut down a few days ago due to non supply of coal. 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.
Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd (PSPCL) CMD A Venu Prasad told The Indian Express that the utility was imposing power cuts of 3-4 hours’ duration in the state since Tuesday as there was shortage of power. “We had to impose cuts as there was a gap between demand and supply. The price of power through exchange had shot up from that quoted by us in the tenders. Hence we could not buy the power.”
He said that they were spending Rs 10-15 crore everyday on purchasing power as all public and private thermal power plants had shut down in the state due to non-availability of coal owing to suspension of trains.
Gunny bags supply
A state government’s report on the economic impact of suspension of railways has stated that 60,000 bundles of bardana (gunny bags) were stuck between Rajpura and Delhi to be delivered to Punjab. “This is affecting the lifting of paddy, which is lying in the open. This is affecting the arrival of other produce,” said Punjab Food Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu.
The report further stated that as many as 1.5 lakh bundles of cotton to be sent to other states by the Cotton Corporation of India were also stuck and the godowns were overflowing. This was creating problems for farmers in terms of storage of their produce.
Ashu said the movement of foodgrains from the state’s godowns and transport to other states has also been affected. “This is creating shortage of storage space. Paddy needs storage as it is not a hardy grain. But if our godowns are not getting emptied, how will we make space?”
As per the assessment, out of 4.5 lakh MT DAP, and 10 lakh MT urea to be used before December 31, the state has received 66,000 MT urea till now. In the month of October, the state had an allocation of 4 lakh MT urea.
Similarly, the state has received only 56,000 MT DAP out of an allocation of 2.5 lakh MT for October. The farmers are in the process of sowing wheat. By November 15, the farmers will require the first installment of fertilisers. The entire stock, to be used by December 31, should have arrived by now.
The government has also stated that the industry, trying to get back on track after Covid-19 lockdowns, was suffering. The hosiery industry alone is set to suffer a loss of Rs 8,500 crore. At 2.37 lakh industrial units in the state, 16 lakh workers get employment. With the future of these industries uncertain due to stoppage of supply of raw material, it could pose serious problems and unrest.
Congress MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu said that Ludhiana, being the hub of industry, was also suffering. “The steel industry is not getting any raw material. Our biggest steel unit, Aarti Industries, has already shut down for want of raw steel.”
He added that even the hosiery traders, who supply their products to Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of the country ahead of winters, were in a bind. “Their orders are being canceled. Where will they find the market for their products now?” he asked.
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