Chandigarh: The agitation of Punjab farmers against the Centre’s contentious farm laws has been the most significant one in the country, but it comes at a huge cost.
Twelve farmers have so far died, three in road mishaps, one slipped on a railway track, one died of suicide, and remaining seven succumbed to cardiac arrests and other underlying medical conditions, during the course of last two months of their unrelenting protests.
While the Punjab government has released Rs 3 lakh compensation to the families of deceased farmers, Bhartiya Kisan Union-Ugrahan, whose four members are among those died, are not satisfied. It has been demanding at least Rs 10 lakh financial assistance, a government job to kin and a waiver of pending farm debt of the family.
District administration complex, which houses offices of top district officials, have been shut in Mansa and Sangrur districts due to indefinite protests by BKU-Ugrahan members against the state’s indifference to their demands, of rolling back recent laws.
As a mark of protest, dead bodies of two farmers — one each in Sangrur and Mansa districts — have not been cremated, and have been kept in the mortuaries of the government hospitals since their deaths on October 9.
“We will not end protests at district complex offices in Mansa and Sangrur districts, and will not cremate bodies of dead farmers till the time the state does not pay their families adequate compensation in all cases. Three lakh rupees cheque paid by the state in many cases is not adequate and not acceptable to us,” said Joginder Ugrahan, president of BKU-Ugrahan, which has been at the forefront of farmers’ agitation in Punjab.
Deaths during protests
Ever since the farmers’ protest began, the state health department has been issuing repeated instructions asking elderly people with comorbidities to stay put at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, elderly farmers have joined protests, and have remained steadfast with their demands.
However, the case of Yaspal Singh (60), a farmer from Mehal Kalan in Barnala, is rather unfortunate as he died during a demonstration.
He was speaking from a dais on October 5, when he fell down on the stage. He was a diabetic and his sugar level had gone up. He was rushed to a nearby government hospital but did not survive.
Similarly, 57-year-old Jagraj Singh, a member of BKU (Kadian), fell sick at Mansa railway station on October 17. He was taken to Mansa civil hospital where he died during treatment. He suffered a heart attack.
But these incidents have not stopped elderly farmers from taking in the protests, who actually form the majority of protestors.
They are squatting on railway tracks and near toll plazas in protest, besides holding demonstrations day and night outside the properties of corporates houses, like Adani and Reliance groups and private thermal plants to exert pressure on the Centre to roll back farm laws.
“There is a fear among farmers that new bills will snatch away their MSP and mandi system. My father joined the protest with this very conviction, but sadly he could not hold up too long due to poor health issues,” said Jagtar Bawa, son of 70-year-old Megh Raj Bawa from Gobindpura Nagri village in Sunam Tehsil of Sangrur district, who died of cardiac arrest earlier this month.
Megh Raj, a small-time farmer with landholding of not more than two acres, was also a kavishar (a performer of folk songs). Jagtar recalled that his father had penned his own ballads and fondly sang in farmers’ protests to invoke the revolutionary spirit among the protestors.
“But fate had its own ways. He suddenly collapsed soon after he finished singing a ballad at a farmers’ congregation near the toll plaza at Dhuri road in Sangrur on October 9,” lamented Jagtar.
Amrik Singh Ganduan, district president of BKU-Ugrahan, recalled that Megh Raj had been immediately taken to hospital after he collapsed on the stage but he could not survive.
Since then, BKU-Ugrahan has been demanding the local administration for Rs 10 lakh compensation and a job for deceased’s kin, but local officials and other top state government officers have not responded yet, he added.
To mount pressure on the local administration, the farmers’ union did not cremate Bawa’s body, which has been still kept at the mortuary of Dhuri Government Hospital.
As talks did not yield results, farmers laid siege to the District Administration Complex in Sangrur on October 20. Farmers, currently squatted outside all three gates of the district complex office, are not allowing anyone to enter there, virtually bringing all the government business of the district to a standstill.
While deputy commissioner Ramvir Singh, who is forced to work from his home, said that the matter is being resolved through dialogue at various levels.
Meanwhile, Amrik Singh told The Wire that they would not open gates of the district administration complex until assurance of a government job and adequate compensation are provided to the families of the deceased farmers.
Sixty-five-year-old Labh Singh, who belongs to Bhullerheri village in Dhuri block of the district, had faced a similar fate. He suffered a heart attack during a protest called by BKU Dakaunda at Sangrur railway station.
His son Nazam Singh (32) said that his father was mostly staying at the dharna site on railway station since October 1 and hardly visited home. All of sudden, he experienced pain in the chest in the early hours on October 15 and died later in the hospital.
BKU Dakaunda general secretary, Jagmohan Singh, said that Labh Singh’s family’s financial condition is not good. He was working as a private security guard to earn some extra income since the landholding with the family was not more than three acres. The deceased also had a debt of Rs 4 lakh.
While area sub-divisional magistrate handed over Rs 3 lakh cheque to the family at his ‘Bhog’, Jagmohan Singh said the government help was insufficient. The family deserves more financial assistance and permanent security, which are still awaited, he added.
In Ropar district too, a 69-year-old farmer sitting on a dharna at the Solkhian toll plaza against the farm laws died of a heart attack on October 18. The deceased was later identified as Capt. Dilbar Hussain, sarpanch of Mianpur village.
Harbans Singh (62), a district level leader of BKU (Sidhupur) in Patiala, was another one to have lost his life due to cardiac arrest. He had been participating in protests since October 17. Effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being burnt in Patiala when he suffered cardiac arrest and was declared dead when he was taken to local government hospital. His body was later cremated by his family.
The death of 54-year-old Joginder Singh is another tragic incident. He hailed from Cheema Khurd village in Taran Taran district.
Pargat Singh, a local leader of Jamuhri Kishan Sabha, said that the deceased was sitting at the protesting site at Beas railway station. In the early hours of October 24, he experienced pain in the chest. He was taken to hospital but died on the way.
He said that the administration announced Rs 5 lakh compensation, which is very less. The deceased had just half an acre land and was surviving on it. His son is a taxi driver with a private tour operator in Chandigarh, and barely manages to earn his livelihood, said Pargat Singh.
‘Insincere efforts of the Punjab government’
On the first day of the special session of Punjab Vidhan Sabha, called on October 19 to oppose the central farm laws, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh led the House in paying homage to farmers who lost their lives during the ongoing protests. Ram Singh, district Mansa president of BKU-Ugrahan, however, said that what was the use of such hollow steps if the families of those died could not be compensated adequately.
He quoted an example of 82-year-old widow Tej Kaur who died at Budhlada railway station after slipping on the track ballast. He said that the lady has four sons, all farmers and have a total family debt of Rs 26 lakh.
“We have closed the local district administrative complex since October 13 in pursuit of our demand for adequate compensation. Our stir will continue until our demands are met,” he asserted.
Although 54-year-old Mithu, son of deceased Tej Kaur, acknowledged the concern shown by the state government to the farmers who died during protests, however, he said they were not able to perform her mother’s last rites due to inadequate compensation.
The death of 33-year-old Gurpeet Singh Rangi is the most unfortunate one. Resident of Gopalpur near Ludhiana, he became a victim of road mishap near a protest site on Ludhiana–Malerkotla road.
His close associate Surinder Singh recalled that Gurpreet participated in demonstrations at Lehra toll plaza and Jagera Reliance petrol pump, but met with an accident on the way to another protest site nearly two weeks ago.
“While culprits are still at large, we fear that he was hit from behind by some drunkard driver,” he added.
Surinder Singh said that the deceased was a marginal farmer and owned less than two acres of land. He is survived by his wife, a five-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. The government must help his family as they are in deep shock, he said.
Two more farmers died due to road mishaps. On September 22, a bus carrying over 40 farmers from Badal village to Kishangarh village in Mansa district had met with an accident at Kot Bhara village in Bathinda. Mukhtair Singh (62) of Kishagarh had died on the spot, while 17 others had been injured. This bus was ferrying farmers after a demonstration at Badal village had ended.
Another farmer, Wazir Singh (70), who was also injured in the same accident succumbed to his injuries on October 3 at a Bathinda hospital. He was also from Kishangarh. His family cremated his body without waiting for any response from the government over demands of farm unions.
Sixty-five-year-old Preetam Singh, a farmer from Akkanwali of village in Mansa district, was first to die for the farmers’ cause. On September 18, when protests were at the initial stage, he consumed sulphas tablets at a demonstration outside former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s house. He was rushed to hospital, but could not survive. His body was cremated after the government provided his family a compensation of Rs 3 lakh.
It was hoped that Punjab chief minister’s populist move to incorporate the provision of mandatory minimum support price (MSP) based buying of agriculture produce and three-year imprisonment to violators would pacify the farmers organisations in Punjab. But they are in no mood to lower their guards. In fact, they are in process of aligning with other organisations in different parts of India to take their protest to the next level.
Sukhdev Singh Kokri, general secretary of BKU-Ugrahan, said that 250 farmers organisations held a meeting under the banner of All India Kishan Sangarsh Coordination Committee in Delhi on October 27 in which it was decided to hold a massive protest in Delhi on November 26 and 27 against the central farm laws. He said that they will not step back until the Centre withdraws these laws.
Meanwhile, Northern Railways has refused to resume the freight as well as passenger train services in Punjab.
“Some papers have published that train services in Punjab have been resumed. It is clarified once again that this is nothing but false news and trains are not running as of now,” Deepak Kumar, chief public relations officer of Northern Railways said in a press release issued on October 29. Train services are hit since October 1 when farmers launched rail-roko (train stoppage) stir as part of their on-going protest.
On October 21, some 30 odd farmers’ organisations decided to shift demonstrations from railway tracks after the chief minister appealed to them to clear tracks since the supply of coal and fertilizers had almost exhausted in the state due to suspension of the goods trains.
Even as railways resumed freight service a day later on October 22, it was again stopped the next day as BKU (Ugrahan) refused to lift the blockade of the railway tracks.
As the Ministry of Railways having clearly told the Congress government the services would not be re-started till the blockade was lifted, three Punjab cabinet ministers — Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Sukhbinder Sarkaria and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa — called BKU-Ugrahan for a meeting in Chandigarh on October 29 to clear the tracks.
They told the union that there were minimal coal stocks left and that the state was staring at a blackout in case it did not get the much-needed coal immediately for running the plants.
But the union declined the request. On why it has been done, union president Joginder Ugrahan in a media release stated that they are not sitting on the main railway lines. Their agitation is only outside private thermal plants that have been supplying expensive electricity to the state under faulty power purchase agreements.
He said that state deliberately disconnected its own state-run thermal plants and was now buying electricity from private players at high cost against the larger public interest of the state.
“We will not lift the blockade here. The state should think of taking over these power plants,” he asserted.