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Punjab landless Dalits' rail roko embarrasses dominant parties 'in their very belly'

By Harsh Thakor* 

History of sorts was created in Punjab on December 12 when Dalit agricultural labour organisations for the first time conducted a rail blockade independently, without support of organisations of the landed peasantry. Around 20,000 labourers participated in 12 districts -- an event that may have embarrassed the ruling parties in their very belly.
The agricultural labourers defied the administration for a sustained period. The agitation was lodged with in a surgical manner, with the trains brought to a literal halt and virtually paralysed, say Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU) sources.
The demands included wage of Rs 700 a day and 200 days' work under MGNREGA, waiver of pending electricity bills, restoration of snapped power connections over non-payment of bills, repeal of amendments to labour laws, loan waiver from microfinance companies, five-marla plots to needy mazdoor families in villages, check on dummy auctions on panchayati land of villages meant for agriculture purposes.
“One third of land is reserved for Dalits, but dummy candidates are fielded by landlords thus depriving Dalit families of their rights to cultivate this land,” said Tarsem Peter, a mazdoor union leader.
Another leader, PKMU state secretary Lacchman Singh Sewewala, spoke about how land still remained in possession of big landlords with the government withdrawing the letter for assessing which framers owned more than the limit granted. He mentioned how the homeless and the needy were denied residential plots, adding, the Channi government had failed to bring the guilty to the book those who committed atrocities on Dalits.
The protesting leaders said no farmer should be allowed to possess over 17 acres of land, as promised in the Land Ceiling Act, 1971. Ironically, though the government relented to the demand on implementing the law, there has been no progress in it so far.
An important demand was offering loans of Rs 50,000 under a 25% labour quota in the primary agricultural labour society, with award of subsidised pulses, wheat, sugar, tea leaves, apart from wheat, to the holders of the blue card.
The protesters also demanded punishment to a deputy superintendent of police from the Chief Minster’s security who lathi charged unemployed youths in Mansa a few days ago.
The participating organisations included Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, Pendu Mazdoor Union, Rural Mazdoor Union, Punjab Khet Mazdoor Sabha, Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union and Punjab Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union, all which also participated in dharnas across Punjab.
The rail roko was supported by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Ugrahan.
The protesters alleged the demands made in the meeting of the Joint Workers' Front with Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi on November 23 were not implemented despite repeated assurances.
They warned the Punjab government that if the demands of the workers were not met they would intensify their struggle. “Channi did not give much assurance on our demands. Still, we waited for a few days and now did a rail roko,” said Sewewala.
Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, Punjab, president Bhagwant Singh Samao said if the government did not meet the demands, the Congress leaders would be openly challenged in all villages.
A total of 26 trains  -- 19 under Ferozepur division and seven under Ambala division -- were affected by a four-hour rail roko protest by Punjab farm labourers’ Sanjha Morcha. In all, the rail roko was organised at nine locations in the state.
These are in Amritsar, Mansa, Jethuke and Pathrala in Bathinda, Goleewala in Faridkot, Tapa area in Barnala, Ajitwal in Moga district, Chowkimaan in Jagraon constituency of Ludhiana district, and Phillaur in Jalandhar. Train passengers had a tough time with rail traffic being disrupted for four hours (noon to 4 pm).
The rail network in Malwa region was totally paralysed while the protest on Amritsar urban rail tracks and Phillaur hampered services on Delhi route. Trains on Ludhiana-Ferozepur rail line too remained affected, so were trains to go from Bathinda to Ganganagar.
Most of the trains were regulated after 4 pm, according to the office of divisional railway manager ( DRM), Ambala. According to the office of DRM, Ferozepur division, a total of 14 trains got delayed while five were rescheduled.
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*Freelance journalist based in Mumbai, who has toured India, particularly Punjab, has been writing on mass movements

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