IT’S 4 AM, the air is chilly, and the town of Shambhu is fast asleep. But the moonlit parking lot at the railway station is rife with activity. The protesting farmers camping there are getting ready for a change of shift. Soon, 29 of them troop out.
Farmers from 10 unions have been camping in and around this railway station for over 50 days now. Hazura Singh (57), block president of BKU (Rajewal) and chief organiser of this morcha, recounts how they first descended on the tracks near the over bridge on October 1.
Protesting against the three central farm laws, farmers across Punjab blocked rail 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,” says Hazura. It started ebbing from October 21, when the 30 farmers’ unions of the state decided to clear the tracks for goods trains. The protesters then 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 rail blockade, the state government urged the unions to clear the platforms. “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,” says Nathu Lal, former sarpanch of Gharma village.
Inside the dusty railway station on the Punjab-Haryana border that used to hum with 280-odd freight and passenger trains all through the day and night, a lone engine roars past. A railways employee, who requested anonymity, says they are busy with deep screening of the tracks by the engineering wing. “We have doubled the daily screening time from 2 to 4-5 hours. We have already completed deep screening of the tracks from Rajpura to Shambhu,” he said, adding that the Delhi-Ludhiana-Jammu railway line passes through this station.
Outside, over a breakfast of aloo paratha and tea, a farmer asks, “If these engines can run round the clock, why can’t the goods trains?”
To the Union railway ministry’s stand that they will run both goods and passenger trains simultaneously, Ranjit Singh, a farmer, says: “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.”
With the mercury dipping, the farmers have turned the open air parking lot into a tented affair, complete with soft bedding on the floor strewn with Punjabi newspapers.
A motley group of railway and Punjab police personnel keep a close watch on them. Two jawans from the Railway Protection Force (RPF) and three from Government Railway police (GRP) man the station round the clock. ASI Jarnail Singh from GRP says, “This dharna has been peaceful since the beginning but we have to remain alert.” Suresh Kumar, head constable of RPF, concurs, “They have not damaged any property of the railway station.”
Pointing to the police bandobast, a farmer, says, “They take our pictures at least thrice a day, and if any leader comes to address us, they record his speech.”
The cops shrug. “It is the protocol, we have to send this information to the head office every day.”
Come lunch time, some of the railway staff sit down for the langar along with the 70-odd farmers and children from the railways quarters nearby. Today it is rumali roti with soya nuggets and potatoes. Diwali, the kids say, saw a big spread with sweets galore.
Gurmail Singh from Bhunder Kalan village, who is here for the last four days, says morchas all over the state are run like a well-oiled machinery. “There is a weekly roster for the farmers as well as all the three meals and tea. Today, for instance, the breakfast came from the village of Hazura Singh.”
Surjan Singh from Akri village near Patiala says this morcha is being run by 10 farmer organisations — BKU( Rajewal), BKU(Sidhupur), BKU(Dakaunda), Krantikari Kisan Union ( Punjab ), Krantikari Kisan Union (Phool) , Rashtriya Kisan Manch, All India Kisan Federation, All India Kisan Sabha, Indian Farmer Association and Jamhoori Kisan Sabha.
Two members from each organisation are part of the coordination and organisation committees, which hold a meeting every morning and evening.
The farmers at the morcha have to mark their attendance every morning and evening. Each of the 10 unions sends five farmers each for the night shift, says Surjan.
Breakfast is the leanest time of the day as many farmers return to run daily chores at home. The numbers swell up around noon, before petering down to around 46 after dinner at 7 pm.
The falling mercury does not bother these farmers. Balwinder Singh, 72, says, “We are used to working in the fields early in the morning, the cold doesn’t scare us.”
As some farmers doze off, the conversation veers off to the proposed ‘Delhi Chalo’ march on November 26.
“If talks fail, we will march to Delhi. We have over 2 lakh tractors, we will gherao Delhi from all sides if they don’t let us enter,” bristles the wizened old Jagtar Singh, 72, from Alamdi village of Patiala.
The ‘Dilli sarkar’, he says, should read history: “We have never shied away from a struggle, this is about our land…We never demanded these acts, why is the PM forcing them on us.”
Ruldu Singh, another elderly farmer, who has been glued to news on his pocket radio, says the central government must behave like a benevolent big brother: “Punjab has close to 2 lakh trucks that are making up for the trains. Centre must decide whether they need Punjab…What are they going to gain after stopping trains?”
It is one question that resonates across the 25 morcha sites near various railway stations across the state.
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