The second day of a three-day dharna staged by farmers from Punjab’s largest farmers' union, the BKU (Ugrahan), which began on Friday, saw the participation of more protesters who maintained COVID-appropriate behaviour. The dharna's location – Punjab Urban Development Authority (PUDA) grounds – in Patiala was marked with circles to ensure that proper social distancing was maintained.
The ongoing dharna is significant in two ways. First, despite CM Amarinder Singh’s request to not proceed with the protest plan, the farmers sat in protest while ensuring that everyone was safe. Secondly, the protest was not only against the Centre, but also against the Congress government in Punjab which had backed the farmers' movement against the three contentious Farm Laws.
The protest has been organised to draw attention to the gaps in the state’s health infrastructure, including the lack of proper healthcare, fleecing by private hospitals, scarcity of medical staff in rural areas and shortage of vaccines. “In Punjab’s rural districts, there are no operational ventilators. There are not enough doctors in the hospitals. Private hospitals are asking for between two to three lakh rupees for handing over bodies in the event of one's death,” said Manjeet Nihal, the BKU's district president in Patiala and one of protesters.
On Friday, a team of army personnel from the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME) repaired inoperative ventilators at Guru Gobind Singh Medical College and Hospital in Faridkot after the hospital had incessantly raised the issue of defunct equipment due to a lack of technicians.
The protesters said that the first wave of COVID-19 was easier on the people, adding that while experts had predicted that the second wave would be ferocious, the government didn’t do anything to ramp up health infrastructure. The farmers reiterated that there should be a door-to-door vaccination exercise to ensure that everyone was vaccinated and safe.
“Are farmers also responsible for the lack of infrastructure?” asked Nihal.
The dharna site has a capacity of about 15,000 people, yet there are only about 2,000 protesters. The farmers said that this was done to ensure nobody was in direct contact with one another. As per the protesters they are bringing their own tea and snacks and there is no langar. “People are bringing their own langar. This is a message for the state and the Centre, that we can protest while maintaining COVID protocols. We are responsible but can’t be silent,” added Nihal.
The farmers also reiterated their concern about the three central Farm Laws and said that the protest at Delhi's borders would continue until their demands are met. “It's simple; we want the farm laws removed. Almost 500 of our farmers have died for this. This is a question of our survival. We are not going to budge,” said Janak Singh, another protester.
The protest also saw scores of students echoing the farmers’ concerns. “Everyone in Punjab is concerned about the states mishandling of the COVID-19 situation. This not only about farmers, it is about everyone,” said Raman, a member of the Punjab Student Union Shaheed Randhawa.
Punjab has 44,964 active COVID-19 cases at the moment with 5,59,795 instances of people infected by the coronavirus in the state so far. A total of 14,180 people from Punjab have succumbed to the disease and while the number of fresh cases per day is dipping, the state too has suffered the brunt of a brutal second wave of COVID-19.