In recent years, tower-type community water tanks have become the newest, and sometimes deadliest, protest points in the state – something akin to what actor Dharmendra did in the 1975 blockbuster movie “Sholay”. Dharmendra, incidentally, hails from Punjab.
Be it unemployed teachers, women, employees or other protesting groups, community water tanks have become a rallying point for many of them in recent years. The protestors just climb up the water tanks, some of them as high as 100 feet, and perch themselves there for the protest. In recent months, protestors have climbed water tanks in Bathinda, Kapurthala and other places.
“You can say that the inspiration for the water tank protests came from the Dharmendra act in “Sholay”. But the protests being carried out in Punjab are not acting but genuine ones for a valid cause. In certain cases, people have lost their lives while some have been injured,” Swaranjit Kaur from Ludhiana, who participated in one such protest atop a tank in Kapurthala town in 2007, told IANS.
In June 2010, two unemployed women teachers were seriously injured when they jumped from the top of a 90-foot water tank near Bathinda town, 250 km from state capital Chandigarh.
Nearly 10 teachers, including women, had perched themselves atop the water tank and were threatening to immolate themselves if the state government did not agree to their demands, including giving them jobs.
A woman teacher, Kiranjit Kaur of Faridkot, had set herself on fire in Kapurthala town, 200 km from Chandigarh, in February 2010 after the state government failed to honour a promise to fulfil the demands of education guarantee scheme (EGS) teachers. She was one of the four protesting EGS women teachers who had climbed on the tower-type water tank at the civil hospital complex in Kapurthala. Having got 90 percent burns, she later succumbed to her injuries in hospital in Ludhiana.
A police official was accused by the protestors of instigating and challenging her to carry out the self-immolation threat. Within seconds, Kaur sprinkled kerosene on herself and was engulfed in fire. Some of her fellow women teachers fainted on seeing her burn. Others could hardly do anything to save her.
“When the protestors climb on water tanks, we try all means to persuade them to come down. Some of them refuse to budge and keep sitting there for some days. The protests on water tanks can be dangerous and even fatal,” police officer Gurdeep Singh told IANS.
In September 2007, nine teachers in Punjab, including five women, did the water tank stunt in Kapurthala town and threatened to jump if their arrested colleagues were not released. Caught unawares, the authorities roped in a local unit of the army to spread nets under the tank to save the teachers if they actually jumped. The authorities had to order the release of 150 teachers arrested earlier.
“We know that such protests on water tanks are dangerous. But the government does not seem to listen when the protests are carried out on the streets. This is our way of bringing our issues to the notice of the government,” unemployed youth Balwinder Singh said.
While most protests are for a genuine cause like getting jobs, others do it even for trivial issues.
In March 2012, undertrial prisoner Lakhwinder Pal climbed up the water tank inside the Gurdaspur Central Jail to show his protest. He was upset at not being allowed to smoke and demanded a cigarette.
By Jaideep Sarin, IANS