Punjab’s Naushera Dhalla shows up as a dot on Google Maps — one of the thousands of villages lying along the 3,000-km boundary between India and Pakistan.
Just like the solitary tractor on the Western Peripheral Expressway from the village, also but a dot in the vast city of tractors between Kundli and Murthal on National Highway 44.
But Harjit Singh has a different way of looking at it. “Do you realise that there is at least one tractor from every Punjab village here? That’s the beauty of solidarity. Lakhs of dots make up this canvas.”
The 30-year-old is among the eight people from Naushera Dhalla who arrived at the protest site Monday morning on a tractor, a hardy vehicle that has become the emblem of the unyielding farmers protesting against the Centre’s three contentious farm laws.
In another few hours, they will roll into Delhi as part of the massive tractor parade planned on Republic Day. While the Delhi Police Monday gave a no-objection certificate limiting the parade to 5,000 persons and 5,000 tractors, members of the Sanyutka Kisan Morcha said they were expecting close to two lakh tractors. Farmer leaders also announced a plan to march on foot to Parliament on February 1, the day the Union Budget will be presented.
The eight from Naushera Dhalla left their border village, which comes under the Tarn Taran district, at 11 am Sunday and reached Delhi’s gate around 7 am on Monday, a nearly 500-km-long journey that cost them fuel worth around Rs 10,000.
While Harjit has studied till Class 11, fellow traveller Balpreet Singh, 26, is an electrical engineer by qualification. Komal Singh, 40, a farmer, and 16-year-old Rajveer Singh are among the other occupants.
“I am the first engineer in my family. They can’t provide employment to the youth and now want to turn farming unprofitable as well,” says Balpreet, seated in the trolley attached to the tractor.
The families they belong to own between five to eight acres of land, where they grow wheat and paddy, earning between Rs 4 lakh and Rs 6 lakh annually after setting aside the produce needed for their own consumption.
The political significance of the scheduled march is not lost on them, with Komal Singh pointing out how tractors “were part of the first Republic Day parade in post-independent India”, which he has learnt from the speeches of Balbir Singh Rajewal, one of the leaders spearheading the agitation, which will complete two months on Tuesday.
Rajewal’s faction of the Bharatiya Kisan Union mobilised the farmers of Naushera Dhalla. “In the past, we never responded to calls for mobilisation under any banner over any issue. But this time we have come together and realised the power of unity. This has not happened before and will perhaps never get repeated,” says Harjit.
The decision of the farmers to turn down the overtures of the Centre, including the announcement that the laws will be stayed for 18 months, appears rooted in this fear. “The government wants to end this movement. This assurance is a ploy. Mobilisations of this scale cannot be repeated every few months. People do not pour out into the streets just like that. And a mere round trip on a tractor from our village costs Rs 20,000. Sustaining a movement is easier said than done,” says Balpreet.
Their resentment against the government stems not just from the decision to implement the farm laws, which they believe will ruin them financially. As residents of a village that shares its boundary with Pakistan, they also disapprove of the Centre’s neighbourhood policy. “Earlier, tomatoes from Nashik used to cross over to Pakistan via Wagah. Labourers from Punjab, those running transport businesses were part of the economy. From the Pakistani side, cement and salt used to come. Now all that has stopped. Salt is still imported but that goes straight to Adani’s port in Gujarat. The government says it will not maintain ties with Pakistan. In reality, it is extending favours to its favourite corporate house,” says Harjit.
Fearful of corporate takeover of their farmland, the protesting farmers have been targeting business groups under the Reliance Jio and Adani conglomerates over the last few months, calling for a boycott of their products, which echoed across Singhu even on Monday.
After sunset, as the mercury dips, the area comes alive with music and warmth of bonfires every few steps. The natives of Naushera, tired after an overnight journey, are preparing to retire early.
“This is history in the making. Now, we are also part of it,” smiles Harjit.