A blockade – the act of preventing goods or people from entering a place – is a frequent practice in case of hostilities between countries. In a curious turn of events, there are now accusations that a state within the Indian Union is being blockaded. The government of Punjab has alleged that the Union government has instituted a “rail blockade” against the state.

Punjab is referring to the fact that the Union government-run Indian railways has stopped goods trains from entering the state since October 24. The first outcome of this is that Punjab is running out of coal to power its thermal power plants. The Tribune reported that by November 3, Punjab had completely run out of coal stocks with the state having to buy power from the National Grid. As a result, the entire state is seeing extensive load shedding, with the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited cutting power from three to five hours given the severe coal crunch.

Along with coal, Punjab is now facing shortages in fertilisers, gunny bags and raw material for industry.

Farmers protest

How did such an alarming situation arise? The issue traces itself to the farmers’ agitation in Punjab against the Union government’s farm acts passed in September which seeks to further open Indian agriculture to the free market. Fearing that this would mean a retreat by the Indian state from providing support, Punjabi farmers launched a wide-spread agitation which, amongst things, put in place rail rokos. Goods train services remained severely hit for much of October due to this agitation and it was only on October 21 that farmer unions announced a cessation of sit-in on rail tracks.

However, the Indian Railways alleged that some instances of goods trains being stopped by farmers continued even then. “We cannot run operations in these conditions of uncertainty and we want to make it clear that operations and planning have to be done by us only and not by anyone else,” the Indian Railways said in a statement on October 27 as it continued the stoppage of goods trains from entering the state.

On Friday, Union minister of railways Piyush Goyal reiterated this argument. ”Railways are keen to start services for the benefit of farmers, industry, MSMEs, general public and passenger convenience,” Goyal said. “Requested state government to clear entire Railway network from blockages so that we can run all trains, to and through Punjab, without interruption and safely.”

It is unclear why the current agitation in Punjab has led to an unprecedented failure to run trains when such services have continued in the past even in the face of much great disturbances in other states. In fact, farmer unions deny the Modi government’s charge that trains were stopped or that public tracks are still be blocked.

The police divert trucks in Punjab as farmers block traffic to protest against the new farm laws. Credit: PTI

Federal breakdown

However, what is clear that this incident points to a grave instance of federal breakdown. A situation where Punjab and New Delhi blame each other as an entire state is starved of essential goods is simply unacceptable for the running of the Indian Union.

To make things worse, matters do not stop at essential goods for Punjab. Given that Ladakh’s supply lines pass through the state, the Union territory is also experiencing a shortage of essential goods such as fuel. This is doubly troubling given that the region is now under a heightened state of military tension with the Indian Army in a face off with the Chinese.

Sensitive state

Great care must also be taken given that Punjab has had a troubled recent history with a militant secessionist movement raising its head in the 1980s. A politics that pits the entire state against the Centre is highly undesirable. Matters are now grave enough for the Punjab chief minister Amrinder Singh to flag that the current unrest might provide an opening for Pakistan to make attempts at “persuading misguided youth from among the angry farming community to join their ranks in the prevailing circumstances”.

It is clear that no matter what the hurdles, Punjab and New Delhi must sort them out immediately and end the rail blockade.