Punjab’s rail-roko protest takes a predictable turn

By: |
November 04, 2020 3:40 PM

Unfortunate that Punjab govt allowed protestors to block trains; it needs to clear tracks to ensure trains run again

The state government saying it has succeeded in convincing farmer unions to allow partial resumption of services is no solution. (Image: IE/Harmeet Sodhi)

Is the central government enforcing a kind of economic blockade of Punjab as the state government seems to be suggesting by, since October 24, issuing orders against any trains being sent to the state? Even during the height of terrorism, the president of the Chamber of Industrial and Commercial Organization told The Indian Express (https://bit.ly/3kVTxnX) goods trains had never been stopped by the centre. As a result of goods trains not plying in the state, ironically due to the agitation over the centre’s farm laws, the state’s farmers are amongst the worst hit. The state needs around 14 lakh tonnes of urea immediately but has just about a seventh of this, it has about about 40% of di-ammonium phosphate etc. With most power plants running short of coal, power cuts have already begun across the state and if things don’t get resolved soon, the entire state could soon come to a halt.

Whether the centre is playing hardball with an Opposition state that is trying to subvert its farm reforms is difficult to say, but it is clear the state government is largely to blame. In the initial days of the agitation against the central farm laws, it did little to stop various farmer groups from blocking the tracks. That is the reason why the centre ordered trains to stop operations. While the blockade seems to have been lifted in several areas, reports suggest it remains in place in critical areas. As the Express report points out, the farmer blockades were lifted for the movement of freight trains. That is, the farmers are blocking the tracks at various strategic locations and are willing to allow individual freight trains to pass. Apart from the question of whether the central government should give in to pressure tactics that seek to stop one kind of traffic, there is the issue of whether even freight trains will be allowed to pass unhindered; who is to say when the agitating unions decide to change their mind – farmers are sitting in small groups in over 20 stations – and how does the Railways conduct operations where each train is to be inspected before it is allowed to pass through?

If the state government wants trains services to resume, it has to proactively clear the tracks as well as the railway stations; if need be, police forces needed to be deployed to signal that no rail roko agitations will be permitted. The state government saying it has succeeded in convincing farmer unions to allow partial resumption of services is no solution since it means the Railways cannot operate freely; and the threat of services being disrupted always remains. Indeed, this is a lesson for all future protests. If protestors are allowed – or encouraged – to target public facilities such as railway tracks, the consequences are usually serious since there is no telling how the agitation pans out. In this case, fortunately, there was no violence, but the situation could just have easily spiralled out of control. And given the centre has repeatedly reassured farmers that it has no intention of reducing its MSP-based procurement from Punjab, it is not even clear what the chief minister or the striking farmers want; in the event, it is not clear when Railway services can be fully resumed. While the Railway ministry has to resume services at the earliest, this cannot happen till the tracks are fully cleared and safeguards put in place to ensure this does not reoccur.

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