Agriculture

Punjab Farmers' Protest: Corporate Houses Feel the Heat, Reliance Petrol Pump Sales Decline

Farmers believe the Narendra Modi government passed the contentious farm laws at the behest of big businessmen like Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

Jalandhar: On October 1, farmers’ unions protesting against the three contentious farm laws announced that they would ‘gherao’ and ‘boycott’ corporate houses in Punjab, primarily those owned by Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

A week later, sales at Reliance petrol pumps across the state have either come to a halt or dropped by 50%. The dispensing units were largely closed, as nearly all petrol pumps run by the company had been barricaded by farmers’ unions. There are 85 Reliance petrol pumps in Punjab.

The unions’ call to ‘boycott corporate houses’ has led to a full-blown economic and social movement, to the extent that people have also done away with Jio SIM cards. There have also been protests against and at Reliance shopping malls, Adani’s silo projects at Moga and Sangrur, the Guru Gobind Singh-HPCL Refinery, Walmart and Best Price stores, toll plazas and even Essar petrol pumps.

BKU (Ekta Ugharahan) members sitting on protest outside Talwandi Sabo Reliance petrol pump. Photo: Kusum Arora

Reliance petrol pumps

Talking to The Wire, Pankaj Bansal, one of the partners of the Reliance petrol pump at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda, said, “The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) members have been sitting on protest outside our petrol pump from October 1. Our sales have dipped to zero and employees were sitting idle. Though the farmers have boycotted our petrol pump, we have already declared our support to their cause. In fact, out of the 18 employees, 15 were sons of local farmers only.”

Watch: Farm Bill Protests: Who Are ‘Arthiyas’ and Why Are They Upset?

Another Reliance petrol pump dealer, Sanjeev Jindal, whose petrol pump is situated on the Chandigarh-Patiala road in Mansa district, said that they were staring at losses. “It has been over a week since my petrol pump has been lying closed. By boycotting our petrol pumps, the farmers are causing a direct loss to dealers like us, not the owners. They have not even taken any permission from the administration to hold a protest. Neither were they adhering to any social distance norms nor wearing masks in COVID-19 times, putting everybody at grave risk. Though we understand their agitation, their way of protesting is wrong.”

Following massive protests, Reliance dealers and employees have also been sharing video messages and photographs on social media to prove their support and in turn pleading with farmers not to target them. A video of a group of Reliance petrol dealers has gone viral on social media, where they were seen expressing support to the farmers protest and requesting that they should not be targeted for the government’s decisions.

Reliance employees at Talwandi Sabo petrol pump holding placards saying ‘We are with farmers’. Photo: Kusum Arora

Reliance dealer Vivek Sharma from Hoshiarpur district said that petrol/diesel sales have dipped sharply. “We have become a soft target for the farmers. Within the past few days, we have witnessed a steep downfall of 50% in our sale. However, the reality is that we had voluntarily shut down our petrol pumps during the Punjab bandh on September 25. Farmers are our major customers, as they buy petrol and diesel in bulk and we even supported them during the COVID-19 lockdown. Farmers are our regular customers and they should not target us for the farm laws passed by the Central government.”

Sharma also said that farmers were also changing Jio SIMs and subscribing to other mobile companies, a message which spread like wildfire through social media and by word of mouth. Earlier, he also said that Reliance petrol pumps were all set to be renamed as ‘Jio British Petroleum (BP)’, a UK oil company.

The situation is similar at other Reliance petrol pumps at Majitha in Amritsar, Kurali in Mohali, Patiala, Barnala and Jalandhar too. Interestingly, around 15 out of 85 petrol pumps were owned by politicians from the Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress, who were not the direct owners but have shares in these ventures. “Prominent among the politicians are SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal who owns two petrol pumps – one in Muktsar and other at Bathinda, Congress MLA Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa’s petrol pump at Kathunangal, former SAD MLA Mantar Singh Brar’s petrol pump at Bhagta Bhai Ka also in Bathinda and other leaders,” said a petrol pump dealer, requesting anonymity.

Commenting on the impact of the anti-farm laws protests and boycott of corporate houses, Bharti Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) state secretary Shingara Singh Mann said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was making policies to suit Ambani and Adani, hence the protests against Reliance and Jio SIMs.

Also read: An Ingenious Legislative Approach for States to Undo the Doom Spelled by Central Farm Laws

“Every year a large number of migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar come to Punjab to work as labourers in our fields. Bihar wale ta Punjab a gaye, asi kithey jawange? (Those from Bihar came to Punjab, where will we go?) Apart from the three contentious farm laws, Modi government is all set to bring the Electricity Amendment Bill 2020, which would be the last nail in the coffin. It is a do or die situation for us, as our existence is at stake. We (31 farm unions) will not let this happen and the Modi government will have to revoke these laws,” he said.

Jio SIMs boycott

Hoshiarpur-based farmer Harsimran Singh Bajwa, who is leading the local protests, said that he motivated many people to do away with Jio SIMs. “Why should we use JIO SIMs and fill the coffers of Ambani, who is out to ruin agriculture in Punjab? It is a symbolic protest and I am glad many people, including women, have stopped using Jio SIMs and subscribed to other companies. Farmers will be looted like Jio subscribers, where initially everything was free but later it came at a price and today Ambani has monopolised the telecom market. Instead of assuring Minimum Support Price (MSP) for listed crops other than paddy, wheat, maize, cotton and implementing the Swaminathan report, the Modi government is destroying agriculture for the sake of Ambani and Adani,” he said.

Even Pendu Mazdoor Union (PMU) leader Tarsem Peter, a farm labourers’ organisation, said that they have been leading mass agitations against corporate houses and urged people stop using Jio SIMs. “People are supporting this call and the corporate houses are feeling the heat,” he said.

AAP MLA Gurmeet Hayer protesting at Adani Agri Logistics site in Moga. Photo: Kusum Arora

Among others, Gautam Adani’s Silo Project at Moga with Food Corporation of India (FCI) to store wheat is also under attack. Farmers wrote ‘Go Back Adani’ slogans at the Moga plant. AAP MLA from Barnala Gurmeet Hayer said, “The Adani Agri Logistics was set up by SAD-BJP government in 2007. How can both the parties now claim that they were not favouring corporates?”

It is pertinent to mention here that Union minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution Raosaheb Patil Danve had visited Sangrur district in February this year and announced that the Centre will be constructing 31 Silos in Punjab for the storage of food grains.

NRIs abroad hold protests too

A protest march against the farm laws was held in Surrey, British Columbia in Canada on October 4. The tractor-car-truck rally started from Dashmesh Darbar Gurdwara, Surrey to Holland Park in Surrey City Centre.

Holding flags and placards, members of the Punjabi diaspora lashed out at the Modi government for targeting farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even though I am a Canadian citizen, my roots are in Punjab. We have already faced many setbacks back in the 1980s and we will not let this happen now. This rally is in support of our farmers in Punjab and we stand united with them,” said Mandeep Singh from Surrey.

Also read: What Will the Legal Challenge to the Modi Government’s Farm Bills Look Like?

Punjabis based in California, US also held a protest outside the Indian consulate in San Francisco on October 4. Even NRIs in London, UK announced widespread protests against Modi, if the farm laws were not rolled back.

In France, NRIs raised ‘Kisan Bachao-Punjab Bachao’ slogans and said that the manner in which the farm laws were passed in parliament clearly showed Modi government’s intention.

Similarly, at Milan in Italy, Punjabis led by Sukhchain Singh Mann and others also organised a protest march on October 4, where they announced that if the farm laws are not revoked, they will hold a protest outside the UN office in the coming days. A protest also took place in Toronto, Canada on October 11.

Kusum Arora is an independent journalist.