Several trains were cancelled, highways and key roads blocked and many thousands stranded for hours on Monday as a nationwide 10-hour shutdown against the Centre’s three farm laws disrupted lives across parts of India, particularly in the north.
The impact of the 6 am to 4 pm Bharat Bandh, which saw demonstrations in many places, passed off relatively peacefully with no reports of injuries or serious clashes. It was felt the most around Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the centre of the farm protests, and also in large pockets of Kerala, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha.
Arterial roads, highways blocked
Protesters blocked highways and arterial roads and squatted on tracks in several places from morning as the shutdown called by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of 40 farmer unions got underway. The blockade was lifted at 4 pm.
The day marks one year since President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent to the three controversial laws and 10 months since thousands of farmers set up camp at Delhi’s border points to voice their protest.
Several trains cancelled
Though large parts of India were untouched by the shutdown, north India felt the pinch with about 25 trains being affected and massive jams that prevented the cross border movement of commuters as well as trucks carrying essentials.
The Delhi-NCR region, including the satellite towns of Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Noida, where thousands cross the borders each day was particularly hit.
Delhi itself was mostly unaffected, but there was chaos at its borders with traffic snarls that stretched through much of the day and commuters who couldn’t get to office, or college or even to that important doctor’s appointment. Images of cars waiting to be let through, lined up back to back as far as the eye could see, told their own story.
While there were instances of unwell patients being let through, among those stuck at the Delhi-Gurgaon border was a man who couldn’t make it for his appointment at the Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon.
Farmers blocked other roads leading into the national capital, including at Ghazipur in western Uttar Pradesh Not far away in Sonipat in Haryana, some farmers squatted on tracks. In nearby Patiala in Punjab, too, members of the BKU-Ugrahan sat on the tracks to register their protest.
Shutdown at many places in Punjab
Punjab saw a complete shutdown in many places, including Moga, where farmers blocked national highways. Farmer leaders from Punjab have, in many ways, spearheaded the year-long protest.
“#I Stand With Farmers & appeal the Union Government to repeal the three anti-farmer laws. Our farmers have been struggling for their rights since more than a year & it is high time that their voice is heard…,” Punjab’s new chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi said in a tweet.
In neighbouring Haryana, highways in Sirsa, Fatehabad and Kurukshetra were blocked. There were also reports of farmers squatting on rail tracks at a few places in the two states.
“More than 20 locations are being blocked in Delhi, Ambala, and Firozepur divisions. About 25 trains are affected due to this," a Northern Railway spokesperson said.
Farmer leader Yogendra Yadav told a TV channel that the bandh was “extraordinarily successful”. Expressing happiness at the “geographical spread” of the strike, he said farmer organisations were out on the street in many states. He also apologised to those who were affected saying, "Please bear with us."
Non-NDA parties get Bandh support
Many non-NDA parties extended support to the bandh. These included the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Samajwadi Party, Telugu Desam Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Left parties and Swaraj India. The YSR Congress government in Andhra Pradesh had also announced support to the Bharat Bandh.
In West Bengal, life was largely unaffected but Left activists blocked roads and railway tracks in many places. Images from Kolkata showed protesters swarming a section of a railway track. Similar images came in from West Midnapore with Left Front supporters blocking the IIT Kharagpur-Hijri railway line. The ruling Trinamool Congress stayed away but said it supported the demands of the SKM.
Elsewhere in the region, vehicular movement was impacted and shops shut in several places in Jharkhand, including in the state capital Ranchi and Dumka.
Road blockades led to congestion on key highways. In Bihar and Odisha, too, there was a mixed response.
RJD, CPI block railway tracks in Bihar
RJD and CPI members blocked railway lines in Patna, Ara, Jahanabad and Madhepura in Bihar and several roads were closed too but markets were mostly open and offices registered usual attendance. Most private schools in the state were, however, shut.
In Odisha, reports came in of protesters at different places in towns such as Bhubaneswar, Balasore, Rourkela and Sambalpur. They also blocked the railway lines at Bhubaneswar station.
In Kerala, where the strike was supported by the ruling LDF and the opposition Congress-led UDF, KSRTC bus services were off the road with almost all trade unions in the state taking part. People who had to travel opted for private modes of transport while others stayed home.
The shutdown did not have any major impact in the initial few hours in Karnataka with all business and establishments functioning normally and transport services available. However, attempts to organise a 'Rasta Roko' at national and state highways led to disruption of vehicular movement in some places, especially in Bengaluru.
All emergency establishments and essential services, including hospitals, medical stores, relief and rescue work and people attending to personal emergencies were exempted from the strike.
Expressing support for protesting farmers, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the farmers' non-violent 'satyagraha' is still resolute.
Posting rhyming lines in Hindi on Twitter, Gandhi said, "Kisano ka ahimsak satyagraha aaj bhi akhand hai, lekin shoshankar sarkar ko ye nahi pasand hai, isliye aaj Bharat Bandh hai (Farmers' non-violent satyagraha is resolute even today, but the exploitative government does not like this and that's why it is Bharat Bandh today)."
"We have to stand unitedly with the farmers, otherwise the future of our nation is dark," Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera told reporters. The SKM on Sunday had appealed for complete peace during the bandh and urged all Indians to join the strike.
“It is a day to express support to the annadatas (farmers) of the country, the ones who keep all Indians alive,” it said in a statement.
The government and farmer unions have held 11 rounds of talks so far, the last being on January 22, to break the deadlock and end the farmers' protest. Talks have not resumed following widespread violence during a tractor rally by protesting farmers on January 26.
The three farm laws
The three laws -- The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 -- were passed by Parliament in September last year.
Farmer groups have alleged the laws will end the 'mandi' and the MSP procurement systems and leave farmers at the mercy of big corporates. The government has rejected these apprehensions as misplaced and asserted that these steps will help increase farmers' income.