Farmers in Punjab have been organising a rail roko for over a month as part of protests against the central farm laws. Initially, the movement of only passenger trains was impacted, with goods trains being allowed to run from select locations. However, since October 1, due to an indefinite rail blockade at 33 locations across Punjab, all train services in Punjab have been on hold. This form of protest, though not entirely unknown in Punjab, is unique for having continued so long. Even during the worst days of terrorism in Punjab, the movement of trains did not stop.
Till date, despite the protesting farmers claiming to have cleared most of the tracks for the movement of goods trains, there is no end in sight. The effects of the rail roko are now being felt as on account of the shortage of coal supplies, the power situation in the state is in a crisis. Ironically, the farmers, who organised the rail roko, are worst hit by it as they are not able to procure urea, which is required for the sowing of rabi wheat. Furthermore, the state needs to evacuate its piling up stocks of food grains in order to create storage space for fresh arrivals. All this is in addition to the impact on the export-import trade of the state as well as the inconvenience caused to passengers. The entire state has thus come to a grinding halt on account of the suspension of trains.
The loss, however, is not only of Punjab. In the months immediately preceding the rail roko stir — August and September — the Railways earned Rs 326 crore and 330 crore respectively, by running freight trains in Punjab. The Railways is thus losing out on huge revenue on account of the ongoing stir. The Railways, on its part, is seeking the safety of its staff in order to resume train services.
Interestingly, the Constitution of India envisages such a situation and takes care of the same. Article 257(3) of the Constitution of India empowers the Government of India to issue directions to a state as to the measures to be taken for the protection of Railways within the state. While there are no reports yet of such constitutional directions indeed being issued to Punjab, the Government of India is well within its rights to do so.
The Constitution further provides the consequences of non-compliance of such constitutional directions issued by the Government of India to a state. Article 365 of the Constitution in categorical terms provides that in case a state fails to comply with the directions issued by the Centre in the exercise of its executive powers under any of the provisions of the Constitution, it shall be lawful for the President to hold that a situation has arisen in which the state government cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution. Meaning thereby that in case constitutional directions, such as the ones issued by the Centre for protection of Railways under Article 257(3), are not complied with, it shall be lawful for the President of India to impose President’s Rule as per the provisions of Article 356.
Though Article 365 was vehemently opposed by some members of the Constituent Assembly, it was B R Ambedkar himself who came to its defence. He stated that the power given to the Centre to issue directions to the states in certain matters (such as for the protection of Railways) would be rendered nugatory in case no consequent power is given to the Centre to take action when there is a failure to carry out those directions.
There were others who stated that such an Article was required to check fissiparous tendencies that may gather momentum with time, and that if such a power was not vested in the Centre, the states would go on acting without caring for the authority of the central government.
It is, however, hoped that in the present imbroglio in Punjab, a solution is arrived at amicably between the state and the Centre, without the Centre having to resort to the provisions of Article 365. An early resolution will prevent any further damage to the economy of the state, which is already reeling on account of the after-effects of the lockdown.
The writer is a Chandigarh-based lawyer