Punjab farmers suffer: Was evacuation of border villages avoidable?
The hysteria surrounding a possible India-Pakistan military face-off may have a devastating impact on the farmers living in the border villages of Punjab.
Apparently under orders from the Centre, the Punjab government has started evacuating people from within 10 km of the international border. This couldn't have come at a worse time for the farmers as the kharif crop harvest is due in the next 12-14 days.
The Union government is facing flak from within its ranks as well as outside for taking action that would cause farmers to lose their paddy harvest.
"If at all Pakistan retaliates, it would be along the Line of Control (in Jammu and Kashmir). There is no significant threat along the International Border. What was the need for evacuating border villages in Punjab?" asks a source close to the government.
There are suspicions that this could be an attempt to make the India-Pakistan tensions an issue in the upcoming Assembly elections Punjab and divert attention from the disaffection against the Akali-BJP government in the state.
The state government claims that the evacuations were initiated following a call from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He requested the chief minister Parkash Singh Badal to start evacuation from the villages in the light of escalating tension after Indian forces carried out surgical strikes to destroy terror launch pads across the LoC.
Badal said that evacuation has been carried out in the six districts and top functionaries of the home and police department were camping at Amritsar to oversee the evacuation operations. The state government has deputed six senior IAS officers to coordinate and oversee the evacuation operations.
As many as 60 villages in Fazilka, 300 in Ferozepur, 135 in Taran Taran, 137 in Amritsar, 290 villages in Gurdaspur and 65 villages in Pathankot have been affected due to the evacuation exercise. People have mainly moved to their relatives and friends apart from the evacuation camps set up in schools, community centres, marriage palaces and other premises.
Badal also informed that health services assistance, drinking water, toilets, food (langar), security of evacuated houses, fodder and generators etc were being arranged for at the special camps being set up for the evacuees.
It is amid such a scenario that the farmers are keeping their fingers crossed on the possibility of the loss of their paddy crop. Eminent agriculture economist at Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) at Chandigarh Dr RS Ghuman told Catch that a fine variety of paddy is grown in the villages along the border.
He said that in case there is escalation of tension, the farmer will not be able to go there to harvest the crop that is expected to mature over the next two weeks. In case there is troop deployment, the crop will be lost as this involves laying of mines.
"In such a scenario the farmers need to be given 100 per cent compensation. It is not only the farmer who will suffer. There are also people in the villages who carry out non-agricultural works who would also be hit economically," he said.
Dr Ghuman pointed that the people are being hit on three fronts. They have been forced to move out of their homes, they are staring at a crop loss and economic activity is being hit.
A senior official of the Punjab agriculture department said that there are more than 500 villages where harvest would be effected in a major way if the tension escalates and farmers are not able to go to their fields. He said that this would be an eventuality if things do not normalise in the next fortnight. The official pointed that the farmers will be in for losses because the government norms for compensation would only allow for a payment of Rs 8000 per acre.
The paddy procurement in the state will start from 1 October. Punjab is eying procurement of 160 lakh metric tonnes of paddy this year. State agriculture minister Adaish Pratap Singh Kairon has appealed to the farmers to bring dry, clean and fully matured paddy to the mandis. He has also asked the district administration not to allow paddy harvesting during night time as the moisture in atmosphere is more at night.
Meanwhile, there are political voices in the state being raised to cut down the war hysteria and look at things from the other side. Journalist turned Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Kanwar Sandhu posted on his Facebook wall, "Punjab, it's people and the Akali government should raise their voice against the war hysteria being created by BJP government (at the centre) on the Punjab border. The whole border stand-off stems from faulty policies of the NDA in Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of such sabre-rattling (as done during Operation Parakram), let us rework our Kashmir policy in accordance with wishes of the people of the state. Government should call an immediate emergency session of Parliament and share details of the so-called surgical strikes across border. This could lead to a war and for that nation needs to be taken into confidence. Punjab and rest of nation can't be held to ransom."
On its part, AAP has started a helpline for the border villages and instructed its cadres to help people who are being made to evacuate.
Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh has decided to camp in Amritsar from 7 October in solidarity with the people living in the border areas. He has appealed all party workers to reach the border areas, right from Gurdaspur to Ferozepur, in solidarity with the people living there.
He has also announced that all the poll campaign related activities in the border constituencies have been put on hold.
Amarinder has asked Badal to make proper arrangements for paddy procurement and ensure that the moment the paddy reaches the mandis, it is purchased and the farmers are paid their money without any delay.
He has suggested that the male population in the border areas be allowed to stay back till the harvesting is over. Besides, he added, the villagers cannot afford to leave behind their livestock, as there are no arrangements made by the government for its safety. Moreover, the farmers owning milch animals will also need to stay back lest they suffer grave losses.
Amarinder was the first to point out that it is an ill advised move on part of the government, whether the state or the centre, to ask the villagers to vacate their places at this time and that too when there are no arrangements in place for their stay. "Where will they go, where will they live, what will they eat and what will happen to their crops?" he asked. Badal has reportedly asked the farmers not to panic.
Meanwhile former Congress leader Jagmeet Singh Brar who is now heading the political forum Pehlan Punjab Lok Hit Abhiyan. visited villages along the IB meeting displaced villagers in the evacuee camps set up in Fazilka. He said," While we support the army wholeheartedly, we must also prepare for the impact of this evacuation because of its timing and the economic condition of these villages. Many of these villages along the border had put themselves up for sale under the burden of mounting loans and government neglect - now they have been forced to abandon standing crops and homes. This will push these broken villages deeper into debt and result in many more suicides in the coming weeks and months."
He added, "While our soldiers protect our borders, we must protect their villages from death and despair. We must protect the families whose sons join the army to protect us."