Millennium Post

What bordertowns are losing

Returning of victorious farmers takes away with them a ‘city’ full of opportunities for the locals — a ‘city’ that was founded on incredible mutual trust and fraternity

What bordertowns are losing

This Friday, when Pushpendra Kumar left his home in Kundli village for his daily 5 am walk, his neighbourhood was changing rapidly. A flurry of thoughts rushed through his head as he saw singing and dancing farmers pack up an entire city on the Singhu border in trailers and trolleys - the kids will be able to reach college faster - work will get easier - but my friends are leaving.

As 24-year-old Vinod Kumar opened up his 'bread pakora' shop on Friday morning, the impending fear of losing business loomed. The farmers' city at the Capital's border had been good for him and his small snacks stall - providing much-needed relief for him and his small family of three - who live in rented accommodation in Kundli village.

And as Mala went about picking the last of the trash from the Singhu border site, she knew that the city she had been helping keep clean and habitable in exchange for daily meals was going to disappear over the weekend.

Over the last three days, farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, who braved the State's might, the weather's unpredictability and nightly slurs being shouted at them from television news studios, have been celebrating - a party like no other, a party to celebrate their successful agitation, a party to mark the longest sit-in protest in independent India.

Starting December 10 morning, farmers started packing up the protest sites at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders. Dismantling what had been home for him, his family and 25-30 others from his village in Punjab's Sangrur district, Tajinder Singh says, "Of course, we are going to miss this place. You see the kids running around, playing? You see these locals who are helping us clear the site? We have been eating and drinking with them for one year almost every day. How can we not miss them?"

But even as the farmers leave with victory in their chants and heavy hearts for the relationships they were going to miss and now cherish forever, there is a cost to small cities disappearing overnight. A cost that people such as Pushpendra, Vinod and Mala in the villages near the protest sites are only now realising they have to bear.

"Why do you think we came together as one and helped the farmers?" Pushpendra asks as he answers himself: "Simply because we knew they were in the right. We know the difficulties the common man is being put through at the hands of this government and this agitation made us feel like we belonged - our struggles were not just our own."

A family of at least five (of which, three are their college-going children), Pushpendra's wife has now had to switch to cooking on a 'chulha' once a day. "We cooked on gas both times till now but the sky-rocketing cost of gas cylinders has forced us to make the switch. In fact, we can't even afford mustard oil anymore. We use refined oil as it is a bit cheaper and that too we have to ration," Pushpendra said as he lit a cigarette - basking in the afternoon sun in his village.

Even as the farmers were largely protesting for the repeal of the three farm laws - the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers' (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and the Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 - along with a legal guarantee for Minimum Support Price for their crops, the villagers connected to their cause in a way that Pushpendra said made them believe in democracy.

On his daily 5 km morning walk, Pushpendra would interact with protesters, hear what they have to say and every day identify a little more with them. "See, this was all our struggles. Sure, the farmers were here to protect their interests but what we have witnessed the protesters go through in the last year has revealed the government's true colours," he says, adding that some of the most important lessons his children have learnt in the last one year have come from the protest site. "We had to show them (our children) democracy at work. I had to share with them what standing up to the State looked like," Pushpendra says.

Since the farmers set up the protest site at the Singhu border, villagers in Kundli - which is heavily populated with migrant workers living in rented flats - have had the friendliest of neighbours. "For the first few months, I remember not having to cook a single meal. We ate three square meals at the protest sites, conducted business with them and most importantly made friends," Vinod said as he chopped vegetables in preparation for his last day of sales at the protest site.

"In the last one year, my routine was set. I set up shop inside the village in the morning and after 5 pm, I would shift the stall to the protest site. If I made Rs 1,000 till 5 pm, I would double that in the four hours between 5 pm and 9 pm at the protest site. While I do understand the difficulties people have faced due to the road closure, it forced people to walk around - bringing more business for me on a daily basis," Vinod said, his year-old daughter playing with an onion beside his cart.

In the one year since the protests began, Vinod had managed to expand his menu from 'bread pakoras' to samosas, pizzas, burgers and other snack items - to a large extent precisely because the farmers had set up a full-fledged town in his backyard - which was till then a quiet highway with people just passing through.

"I took the shop on rent about 1.5 years ago and was not even sure how it would go. I have a small daughter and wife and took a gamble coming here," Vinod said, recalling how in the first few months of the protest, the farmers had helped him with raw materials like wheat flour, water, cooking oil and vegetables whenever he needed it for his stall.

The same was the case for Pushpendra's family. Although they are financially better off than Vinod's family, the fact that help was there if they needed it made them feel safe. "We too ate and drank with them throughout. And it definitely reduced the burden on our family to a large extent but that is not what I will remember the agitation for. We helped them because they were our guests and our hospitality was returned - in the process, I have made some of the best friends in this one year," says Pushpendra, recalling how his former boss from LG, Kuljeet had introduced him to the first wave of farmers who had descended upon Singhu border.

He said, "He (Kuljeet) called me and said farmers are coming, they might need help. So we got ready too. We washed their clothes at our homes, returned them pressed and folded, gave them space to set up tents and beds to sleep in."

In fact, Pushpendra, who runs a small event organising company, Sahil Tent House, had also given out material from his store to help farmers set up their tents. "Around 25-30 tables, tent tarpaulins, tent poles, mats and utensils were sent from my shop along with other villagers pitching in whatever they could," he said, excitedly showing phone numbers of farmers-turned-friends saved on his phone. "We have already started messaging each other, will keep in touch," he says.

Other villagers recalled how the farmers helped them with supplies throughout from comforters and mattresses to food, water, clothes and shoes. And farmers in turn recalled how the villagers helped them. Baljeet Singh, a farmer from Jalandhar district in Punjab said when governments first cut off their water and power supply at Singhu, the locals from Kundli village were the ones who had helped them with battery-operated lanterns and water cans.

In fact, according to Vinod, in his colony, where mostly migrant workers like him live - many working in industrial sectors around the area - for almost an entire year, nobody had to pay for water. "One can (8-10 litres) of water used to cost us Rs 10 and ever since the protest, I can say for a fact that no industrial worker in the village had to pay for water, we were offered the water that came for the protest sites. Most of them had even stopped cooking at home," he said, adding that he is dreading the drop in business that will hit next week.

As his sons supervised the return of these materials, Pushpendra revelled in nostalgia, "From hot coffees on cold winter mornings to cold lassis on hot summer days - there were countless days we spent chatting and catching up in their trailer-trolleys. Almost every evening, we set up a 'baithak' and we talked about everything under the sun - sometimes our chats would be so engrossing that we would continue throughout the night and even sleep there."

But Pushpendra is not oblivious of the difficulties that he and his fellow villagers faced due to the road closures. "I too have three children who go to college and family members who work and study in Delhi. Of course, it was difficult for us but firstly, the farmers did not block roads, that was the police. We just hope the authorities open up the roads soon now."

However, the ones who are truly going to miss the protest and the agitating agrarians are the people who had jobs created for them in the last one year - like the ones running small saloons, shoe-repair shops and rag-pickers like Mala and their children. "For one year, I have been collecting the garbage from here and in turn, we were taken care of. Our children were schooled by the protesters, we were fed by them. To say that we will miss them will be an understatement," she said, her kids - a boy and a girl under the age of 10, running around with their friends - playing with ropes and bamboo poles left in the wake of the dismantled tents.

The financial and social ecosystem that had mushroomed at Delhi's border protest sites is going - and going with it are the opportunities that came for locals to blossom amid them.

And on their way out, even as the protesting farmer unions paid respects to the locals who went above and beyond to help them sustain their protests, the ecosystem built at these spots over the year has found its own way of giving back to the locals - with NGOs and social service organisation deciding to donate all remaining supplies to them as they pack up.

Harminder Singh, who manages a counter of essential daily supplies at the Singhu border, said that without a doubt they will leave supplies for the locals. "From drinking tea with them every evening to helping them out whenever they needed, we were there for each other," he said, as more locals lined up to get the last of the supplies from the store run by Gurmat Gyan Missionary College on Saturday afternoon. In addition to them, other small NGOs and big ones like Khalsa Aid have promised their leftover stocks to the locals.

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