Amid a legislative tug-of-war and political one-upmanship, the farmers’ agitation in Punjab has triggered a faceoff between the state and the Centre over the operation of goods trains. On Monday, the Punjab Government asked Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal to intervene after the Northern Railway extended the suspension of goods train services in the state till October 29 as protesting farmers were reportedly still blocking the tracks at some places. Putting the onus on the Punjab authorities, Goyal sought an assurance from the state government regarding the safety of trains and their crew members to restore freight services.
Throwing its weight behind the farmers, the Punjab Vidhan Sabha had passed three farm Bills on October 20 to counter the Centre’s laws. The move prompted farmer bodies to relax their ‘rail roko’ stir, allowing the movement of goods trains while taking into consideration the shortage of coal and fertilisers. However, the Railways legitimately does not want conditions and stipulations that cannot be complied with. The protesters should not block the lifeline any longer.
The longer this stalemate lasts, the harder it will hit the economy not only of Punjab but also of the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh and the union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Notwithstanding their differences over the farm laws, the Centre and the Punjab Government need to ensure that economic activity is not disrupted. With over 200 farmer unions from various states having decided to launch nationwide protests in the first week of November against the farm Acts, both governments must find a middle ground at the earliest. The Centre, in particular, needs to do a lot more to bridge the trust deficit. Though they have been on the warpath for over a month, farmer bodies are still awaiting a meeting with the Union Agriculture Minister. Their representatives had walked out of a meeting with the agriculture secretary in New Delhi a fortnight ago as no minister was present to hear them out. Giving short shrift to the protesters will only worsen the situation.