Goods, not protests, stopped in their tracks

The farmers protesting in Punjab against the Central government’s farm laws say they are not agitating on railway tracks and platforms anymore, but train services are yet to be resumed. Vikas Vasudeva reports on the impact of the blockade on industry and agriculture

November is generally a busy month in Punjab as the wheat crop is all set for sowing. But this year, the air is thick with resistance. On the tenth day of the month, outside the railway station in Shambhu village in Patiala district on the Punjab-Haryana border, farmers gather to agitate against the Centre’s three recent controversial farm laws. They have come to replace a group of farmers who have just left the makeshift site after spending a chilly winter night in protest.

On the stage of the makeshift protest site the farmers reiterate their resolve: ‘Long live the unity of 30 farmer outfits’. Farmers trooping in say they are distressed about the Centre’s attitude towards their concerns; they think the Centre is being indifferent and confrontational. But they are not angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government alone; they are also upset with the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal — parties who many allege are working only to gain political mileage ahead of the 2022 Assembly election in the State.

The farmers want their voices to be heard and their demands to be met. Their agitation initially halted train services in the State. The farmers say that they stopped protesting on tracks and platforms a few weeks ago, but the Railways are yet to resume operations in the State. Talks between Central Ministers and protesting Punjab farmer unions on Friday ended inconclusively with the government saying that it was open to more talks. The farmers are against the resumption of passenger services, but are angry that the Centre hasn’t resumed goods trains, even though they had lifted the blockade on the tracks. The absence of supply has set off a massive economic crisis that pervades several sectors ranging from farming to manufacturing.

‘Ours is a peaceful protest’

The farmers also say that they will not budge until their concerns are addressed. “We are not squatting on railway tracks or on the platform any more. We have announced that goods trains will be allowed to move. Yet the Central government has not resumed railway services. This is nothing but a confrontational attitude. Our indefinite ‘rail roko’ agitation started on October 1. It was completely peaceful. Can you tell us about any incident of violence? There hasn’t been a single such incident,” says Hazura Singh Mirzapur, a farmer leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal) and co-ordinator of the protest at the Shambhu railway station.

“We were occupying railway tracks till the afternoon of October 22. After that we vacated the tracks and moved to the platforms. On November 4, members of 30 farmer outfits collectively decided to shift the agitation from railway platforms to nearby vicinities. Since November 5, we have been sitting outside the railway station and protesting peacefully. On October 22, at 3.28 p.m., a goods train passed through this station. That happened the next day too; we have records. But from October 24, the movement of trains was stopped. Why is that,” asks Mirzapur.

The 30 farmer outfits, cutting across political affiliations, had first announced on October 21 that they would allow the movement of goods trains till November 5. On November 4, they decided to extend the movement of goods trains till November 20. However, they made it clear that they would not allow movement of passenger trains until their demands were met. The Railways say losses due to the agitation have crossed ₹1,200 crore in the last month.

Gurbaksh Singh Balbera, another farmer leader, says the farmers are upset that they were not taken into confidence by the Centre before introduction of the new farm laws. Now that they are agitating, the government is giving Punjab step-motherly treatment, he says. “These laws have been imposed on us. We will stop protesting only when they are withdrawn. Farmers are protesting in other States as well, and trains are plying in all those States except Punjab. Why is there step-motherly treatment towards Punjab? As far as the issue of security is concerned, which is being raised by the Railways, the State government has already given us an assurance that the police will extend all their support to the Railways in providing security to enable smooth movement of freight trains,” he says.

No trains, no goods

As farmers gather to discuss the day’s strategy, Jaspal Singh, a farmer from Mandauli village, points out the problems that people have started facing: “There’s a shortage of urea in the market. Shop owners have told me that new stock will come only after train services are resumed. I have sown wheat in my field and I am now preparing to use last year’s stock of urea. Also, domestic power cuts in the morning and evening for around two hours each are being imposed for the last few days. At night, power cuts for tubewells are in place these days, which is hampering sowing operations.”

Goods, not protests, stopped in their tracks

 

Sukhchain Singh, a 35-year-old farmer, has purchased wheat seeds recently from Ambala in Haryana as quality seeds are not available in his vicinity. “Earlier I used to get seeds from Ghanaur in Punjab. But this time the dealers have informed me that there’s a shortage of seeds on account of trains not moving. I had to shell out more money to buy seeds,” he says.

A few kilometres from the railway station on the Amritsar-Delhi national highway at the Shambhu border, there are also sit-in protests inside two makeshift tents. At one of the sites, under the banner of the Amritsar Kisan Union, associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal, only a few people are present. Lakhvir Singh, vice-president of the union, says the Central government has been acting in a “vindictive manner” against the farmers of Punjab who have raised their voice against the farm laws. “The people of Punjab are being humiliated. Not resuming goods train services is an attempt to impose an economic blockade. Are we not citizens and do we not have a right to protest,” he asks.

The adjacent protest site houses a group of people led by a Punjabi actor-turned-activist, Deep Sidhu. The gathering is a mix of the young and old. Ranjit Singh of Mahru village says he is fighting for the “rights of Punjab” and as a Punjabi, he won’t relent. “We are facing power cuts. The local industry is facing a shortage of raw materials as goods trains services have been stopped. It’s the government’s strategy to weaken our movement but we won’t budge,” he says while serving food to his fellow protesters.

On the same highway, in Gandian village, a few farmers have blocked entry to a fuel station run by a private company. They say the new farm laws will promote corporate control of food and farming systems, and by protesting outside a “corporate house”, they are conveying the message that they are not willing to accept “corporatisation of farming”.

“The biggest fear is that the government will stop purchasing wheat and paddy in the coming years, which will eventually eliminate the Minimum Support Price regime and destroy the ‘mandi’ system. Where will I go then? It’s a conspiracy to phase out farmers from agriculture and let big corporates take over gradually,” says Parvinder Singh, a farmer participating in the protest. “By not resuming goods train services, the government is trying to scare us as it results in a shortage of urea, fertilizers, seeds, etc. But our resolve is only getting stronger. This a battle for our survival and the generations to come.”

Sumit, 24, says the government needs to understand that the railway impasse will hit neighbouring areas including Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir. “We produce our own foodgrains and vegetables. We have stocks. If the government thinks that by stopping trains it can pressure us, it is wrong. The people in the neighbouring States could suffer, however, especially the armed forces. With the onset of winter, they may run out of supplies once snowfall blocks the roads to Ladakh and the Valley,” he says.

Harvinder Singh of Nagawan village says he has sown wheat in his 15-acre farm with last year’s stocked seed. “I am not worried even if there’s no urea or there are no pesticides available in the absence of train services. The important thing is that I need to stand against these black laws. Otherwise they will spell doom for future generations,” he says.

A ripple effect

The suspension of goods trains has adversely impacted several sectors including agro-processing, engineering, hosiery, pharmaceutical, textile and power. The supply of raw material has reduced considerably, and delivery of products has come to a near halt.

Industry players and economists say that if the blockade is not removed, it could have multiple effects on inter-related value chains across sectors hampering production and livelihoods.

Farmers hold a sit-in protest outside the Shambhu railway station in Punjab’s Patiala district on November 11, 2020.

Farmers hold a sit-in protest outside the Shambhu railway station in Punjab’s Patiala district on November 11, 2020.  
| Photo Credit: V. V. Krishnan

 

“In Punjab, rail traffic had halted for about a month. The loss is not confined to Punjab’s boundaries, this is a loss to the country. As per the Annual Survey of Industries (2017-18), Punjab has 5.4% of the organised manufacturing factories in the country, with 4.5% of the total persons engaged in manufacturing and contributing about 2.2% to the total net value added from the Indian organised manufacturing sector. Further, as per the National Sample Survey Organisation (73rd round), there are 14.56 lakh micro, small and medium enterprises in Punjab with 24.8 lakh employees. According to the latest IMF World Economic Outlook (October 2020), growth projections for India for 2020 is -10.3% for the fiscal year basis starting April 2020. These projections are probably considering only the COVID-19 effects on the economy. But what would be the projections if other internal causes hampering growth were also taken into account such as the ‘rail roko’ in Punjab,” asks Swati Mehta, assistant professor at the Punjab School of Economics, Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar.

According to the statistical abstract of Punjab (2018 and 2019), says Mehta, commodities like mineral oils and other edible oils, kerosene, jute, cement, iron and steel, electrical goods, fertilizers and chemicals come in bulk to Punjab. “Therefore, the dearth of raw materials that are used mainly in agriculture and the industrial sector is hampering growth. Apart from exporting foodgrains and other agricultural commodities, Punjab exports hosiery and ready-made garments, leather products, sewing machines, electric switch gears and electrical accessories, auto spares, sports goods, hand tools and machine tools. In 2018-19, the value of exports of industrial goods from Punjab was ₹1,01,758.38 crore (Statistical Abstract of Punjab, 2019). Thus, the estimated per day loss to Punjab with curbs on exports is expected to be around ₹278 crore,” she says.

“Missing production deadlines would have a negative impact on future production orders. It will also impede future investment prospects in the State. With the Railways as the cheapest means of cargo transportation, the halting of trains has broken the backward and forward linkages in local and global value chains thus hurting the already COVID-19-hit economies. Hence, in the path of revival, governments at different levels along with other stakeholders should work together to find a path to revive growth and secure jobs of the people,” she adds.

A severe blow

The crisis triggered by the suspension of goods trains had resulted in the curtailment of agricultural and vegetables supplies in the State. According to the State agriculture department, fertilizer is the most critical input for sustainable production of wheat crop, sowing of which has already started. Punjab receives the supply of fertilizers from Gujarat and other States through the Railways. At present, shortage of urea is being felt in the vegetable-growing areas of the State and the required quantities are being supplemented by moving truckloads of urea from National Fertilizers plants at Nangal and Bathinda. But it will not be possible to transport large quantities of fertilizer through trucks for meeting the requirement of the wheat crop, according to a recent report of the agriculture department.

Ashok Sethi, director of the Punjab Rice Millers and Exporters Association, says the agro-processing industry has taken a severe blow in the past few days. “The continuing impasse over the movement of goods trains services has shaken the confidence of the agro-processing industry and has caused distress to rice exporters. Over 2,000 rice export containers are stranded at an inland container depot in Ludhiana for almost two months attracting huge demurrage, which has added to financial losses. Shipping companies are charging about $54 per day and it is estimated that ₹25 crore has already been lost. Already rice worth ₹5,000 crore is blocked due to non-movement of rail container cargo.”

He adds: “It is imperative that the State and Central governments engage in a meaningful dialogue with total sincerity to find a solution to the situation. Their adamant attitude is extremely worrying and any delay will harm the future of rice exports.”

Ludhiana-based Vikram Jeet, owner of Newstar industries, engaged in the manufacturing of fasteners including nuts, bolts, studs, rivets and screws, says production has gone down by at least 50% due to non-availability of raw material. “Manufacturing units of cycle parts, auto parts, sewing machines and tractor parts are also facing the same problems. As racks of steel scrap, coal and sponge iron is not coming, the local steel mills and traders have increased the price of steel by about 25%,” he says.

The textile industrial unit owners have similar problems. “Since last month, over 5,000 inbound and outbound containers are stuck at the Ludhiana inland container depot. At present, essential raw material including yarns, chemicals and finished goods are not being cleared to meet Diwali sales. This will dampen the business spirit,” says Ramesh Jagota, president, All India Mink Blanket Manufacturers Association.

Sachin Khanna, a leading blanket exporter in Amritsar, says, “We had shelled out more than triple the amount to ferry our goods through containers by road to Mudra Port. We have paid ₹30,000 extra for each of the five export containers. It’s an extraordinary situation, especially for Punjab due to its location and the problem of logistics.”

The suspension of railway services has also taken a toll on the pharmaceutical industry in Himachal Pradesh. “The pharmaceutical units that are booking export consignments through Punjab’s Ludhiana dry port are being drastically affected,” says Rajesh Gupta, president of the Himachal Pradesh Drugs Manufacturers Association.

Last week, the State government had stated that it had run out of coal stocks, bringing power generation at coal-based thermal plants in the State to a virtual halt. The daytime power shortage ranging between 1,000 megawatts and 1,500 megawatts has forced the power department to impose power cuts on all residential, commercial and agricultural consumers. The Punjab State Power Corporation Limited says it was left with no generation control. Market rates of power continued to be highly volatile and could spike any time, resulting in an increase in the cost of power purchase, on which the State is now completely dependent to feed its cables.

The Railways declined to resume only goods train services in Punjab after protesters cleared the tracks, asserting that they will operate both goods and passenger trains or none at all. All inward and outward goods transportation including essential commodities have been affected adversely in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh.

“Any decision on allowing the movement of passenger trains will be taken on November 18 at our joint meeting of unions. The ongoing impasse is due to the authoritarian attitude of the Central government and discrimination towards Punjab farmers,” says Jagmohan Singh, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda).

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