The adage ‘movement creates movement’ that was frequently used by activists of yore, today perhaps best fits the ongoing stir by peasants against the Centre’s three Farm Laws. It has been off the headlines for a while now, though sporadic protests have been going on, mainly in Punjab and Haryana. Many have pointed out how the protest sites could become “Covid hotspots”. On their part, the protestors claim the pandemic may provide authorities a handle to break their struggle. But they add, they abide by all health norms.
At Tikri border, Jasbir Kaur Natt has been staying with her family in her makeshift abode since the protests reached Delhi’s doors. She heads the steering committee of the joint platform of farmer unions, Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), and is responsible for coordinating and handling the speakers and the crowd.
“We adhere by health protocols. Our organisation had even approached authorities for setting up vaccination camps at protest sites. But nothing happened,” says Natt, who has been a farmer and labour rights activist for about three decades. Husband Sukhdarshan and daughter Navkaran are both supporting her actively at the site since the protest began. Her relatives sometimes drop by to lend support.
“Thankfully, there hasn’t been any Covid case at our site, except one…,” she adds. The one incident she refers to is of an activist from West Bengal, who died on April 30. The 26-year-old woman, who was said to have contracted Covid-19, was allegedly raped by some men who had accompanied her on way to join the protest at Tikri border.
A complaint has been lodged with police in Bahadurgarh and an FIR registered against the four accused. In a statement, SKM said the woman was assaulted on her way to Delhi and after reaching Tikri.
After about a week, she developed cough and high fever. “When this lady started having bouts of cough, my daughter managed to get her admitted to a hospital. We were not aware she had Covid. My daughter also later contracted the infection. By then, she had returned to Punjab and has since recovered,” adds Jasbir.
Not far from the raised dais where Jasbir is working on the day’s schedule, Dr Sakshi Pannu is attending to an elderly farmer. The young doctor goes through routine monitoring of heart rate, body temperature, etc, before suggesting remedies.
“I’ve been here for over four months now, but haven’t yet come across any patient with Covid,” says the doctor. “Due to the weather, people are getting cough and cold. We prescribe medicine, monitor progress, advise pathology tests and prescribe a course of medicine if needed,” adds the mother of a one-year-old.
If deemed necessary, patients are referred to hospitals nearby, where the physician herself ensures appropriate care. All this and more is being supervised by Dr Swaiman Singh, running a medical camp.
The 34-year-old Indian-American cardiologist has been providing free healthcare, supplies and shelter not only to farmers protesting near Tikri border, but also to residents in adjacent localities of Delhi and Haryana.
“Most of the patients coming here are suffering from hypertension or diabetes,” says Dr Singh. “Due to the conditions here, there are cases of diarrhoea and malaria too. Then there are cases of depression and trauma — usual cases at any hospital,” he adds.
Dr Singh gave up his job at a hospital in Newark, New Jersey, to “serve the people in India”. For the last six months, he has been attending to patients at the protest sites in Tikri and Singhu borders, where he has set up a ‘Covid task force’. People donate food, medicine and equipment. “Since the past three weeks, we’re distributing oxygen concentrators, blood pressure monitors, medicines, etc. to Covid patients in nearby localities of Delhi and Haryana. We source oxygen cylinders when needed. We also follow up with tele-medicine. I have attended to about 250 patients with Covid-19 symptoms in adjacent areas of Delhi and Haryana,” he says.
He adds there may be several factors why the protest sites haven’t reported any outbreak despite being termed ‘hotspots’. “Before joining here, many protestors had taken vaccines, and influenced others to follow suit. Herd immunity is also playing a part. Many rural folks also have higher inbuilt immunity,” he reflects, adding: “Moreover, protestors are within a closed area. There is not much exposure to people from outside. It’s a lockdown within a lockdown.”
Social workers and trained professionals have lent a helping hand to the cause of the thousands camping under open skies. Union leaders spearheading the protest realise the need to adhere to health and hygiene protocols to ensure the pandemic does not upend their struggle.
“Since Independence, this is the longest-ever peasants’ struggle in the country,” claimed Hannan Mollah, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), “And the protests will continue peacefully till our demands are met.”
AIKS is part of the 40-odd farmer unions that comprise Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) — the banner under which the agitation is going on at NCR’s borders. It is affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M).
“We distribute face masks, soaps, and hand sanitisers, and have also instructed langars to provide warm water for all to drink and gargle. We’re trying to maintain protocols as much as possible in the absence of any assistance or infrastructure from authorities,” he added.
On several occasions, the Central and Haryana governments have urged farmers to vacate the protest sites in view of the Covid-19 second wave. In mid-April, word spread among the protesters the government could evict them forcibly. The “operation”, some claimed, would be undertaken in the name of the pandemic protocol.
On May 25, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took cognisance of a complainant that “mass gatherings of protesting farmers, flouting Covid-appropriate behaviour, are against the norms laid down by the Central government and advisory of the Commission itself, as safeguards against the pandemic. Allegedly, the situation is likely to worsen due to the increased inflow of farmers at the protest sites: not only are they putting their lives at risk, but, as potential carriers of the virus, also posing a risk to others.”
The Commission issued notices to chief secretaries of NCT of Delhi, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh to submit “action taken” reports regarding steps taken to control the spread of Covid at the protest sites. The reports are to be submitted within four weeks.
The march is long, challenges are many, and as the wait gets longer, there are chances of adversaries growing, causing a dip in protestors’ morale. But then, the life of a peasant was never easy. And as they believe, each movement is acting as a catalyst to propel the wider movement.
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