On Tuesday, the two main federations of employee unions in Punjab came together in Jalandhar, reuniting with the resolve to intensify protests as assembly elections are now less than a year away. This is crunch time.
While farmer unions are on their own protests for years, more than 25 unions of staff and the unemployed too remain up in arms, some for a year and more, primarily against the two-term government of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“With more than one-fourth of the government employees working on contract basis on paltry allowances, there is widespread agitation,” said Sajjan Singh, chief of the Punjab Subordinate Services Employees Federation launched in 1958, which reunited with its faction led by Raghbir Singh Dhillon. Their strength has apparently increased as the two factions account for nearly 50 unions active in the state, with the education sector alone having 20-odd unions.
The government knows it. This past Sunday, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal held talks with representatives of more than 20 unions from the education and power sectors. The demands remain almost identical — jobs to the qualified unemployed, regularising contractual jobs, and recruitment on merit in a transparent manner.
A couple of months before that, on February 18, chief secretary Sarvesh Kaushal too had a meeting with delegates of 57 unions from the education and technical education sectors, assuring them of not only filling up vacant posts and regularising those on contract, but also carrying out long-pending promotions.
But the talk hasn’t helped so far. On the ground, protests have in fact taken a ‘via Bathinda’ route in an effort to be effective, as that’s the home turf of the ruling Badals. This has also lent a new meaning to the age-old adage, ‘Via Bathinda’; it earlier meant the ‘smart way’ in not-so-positive terms.
On Sunday last, when Badal held talks with different unions of the education sector in Chandigarh, cops resorted to a mild lathicharge on protesting employees of the agricultural cooperative societies who were demanding release of their 37 arrested colleagues on the Bathinda-Malout road.
Bathinda has become the protest capital all the more in the past one year, and the police’s “preventive measures” have been getting more and more stringent.
At each ‘sangat darshan’ (public meeting) programme of CM Badal or anyone from his family and government, cops in large numbers are visible, apprehending a protest by some section of staff or the jobless.
“Last year has been tough, but we are now strict, to avoid any inconvenience to the general public,” said Swapan Sharma, senior superintendent of police (SSP), Bathinda.
“Some unions are cooperative and understand the value of dialogue, but certain elements exploit the situation and that takes an ugly turn; like in case of sudden road blockades and serious disruption to public life,” he added.
It does get tough for both sides at times. In July last year, it came full circle, when some protesting teachers jumped into a canal to escape a police lathicharge, and the cops jumped into the canal to save the teachers from drowning.