THE most famous viaduct in Punjab at present, the Piareana Viaduct in Ferozepur district was inaugurated just six months ago. It is unimpressive by the standards of its urban counterparts, all of which are 600 meters and built at a cost of Rs 4 crore by the National Highways Authority of India. But it was here that Prime Minister Narendra Modi got stuck for more than 20 minutes on January 5, placing the small stretch on the Ludhiana-Ferozepur road, with 10-12 shops on one side and the village of Piareana borde, plonk at the heart of the discourse of the BJP polls.
The most action this area expected to see was at the PGI Satellite Center, about 9km away, where the Prime Minister was due to go that day after paying his respects at the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Hussainiwala. One of the reasons the flyover appeared was to accommodate the expected increase in traffic following the inauguration of the PGI Center.
Shuminder Pal Singh Matharu, who runs a farm equipment repair shop on one side of the flyover, says he did not open his shop that day. “I live in the nearby village of Saide-ke-Hasham. That day, the shops were closed because it was raining. We were also not expecting business due to the Prime Minister’s rally (to be held after the inauguration of the PGI center).”
Reports of a dharna blocking the prime minister came as a surprise, Matharu says, although he doesn’t entirely care for the attention. “Overview of Pehlan kadi te dharna nahi lagda si. Pehli var lagya si. Hun sab Piareana hi Google karde ne (There was no dharna there earlier. It was the first time. Now everyone searches Piareana on Google).
The dharna was organized by the farmers’ union BKU (Krantikari). Jatinder Singh, from another nearby village, Wazirpur, and a member of the BKU (Krantikari), says: “That day, some of our members came from Zira (about 40 km away). I was not at the demonstration site. Singh says the union had issued a call to protest at the district headquarters and were marching there. “But the police didn’t allow them to move on, so they held a dharna where they were arrested. The same has happened in various other places,” he adds, noting, “So far, to my knowledge, no police action has been taken against anyone.
Gurmeet Singh Mehma, another peasant leader, second Singh. “The farmers wanted to go to the district commissioner’s office. A decision was made that if we were arrested, we would hold a dharna in the same place. Hence, the dharna started on the hover.
Mehma says that in their year of protesting farm laws, the flyover never featured. “We organized pakka dharnas on Zira road at Reliance petrol pump, another outside the godown of a company house near Sappanwali village and the third on Faridkot-Ferozepur road. During calls from Bharat Bandh or Punjab Bandh, we blocked the road at Tuning Post No. 7 near Ferozepur cantonment area. But we never thought about this flyover.
Piareana, a small village of about 2,500 inhabitants, barely 1,200-1,300 voters and middle and marginal farmers, is getting used to its 20 minutes of fame. “None of the village had gone to the site of the demonstration or for the rally, but the name of the village is starting to be known,” said Balbir Singh, from the village of Badhni Jaimal Singh, neighbor of Piareana.
A few old people from nearby villages remember a time some five decades ago when Piareana had its greatest appointment with infamy. Counterfeit money led officials to the astonishing discovery of a machine printing those of the village – remarkable enough to become a story passed down from generation to generation.
As accusations of a Khalistan conspiracy are thrown around, Jatinder Singh recalls the price the village paid for terrorism. “Before that, we had a majority of Mahajans and Pandits, but they gradually moved from here to the cities or out of Punjab. Now there is a mixed Sikh-Hindu population,” says Jatinder, adding, “It is a quiet village.”
Shuminder Pal intervenes: “Villagers are peace-loving, but women sometimes also question politicians for distributing alcohol to voters. So even if they are not rich, they are aware.
And he doesn’t appreciate what is being said about the overflight. “I wish no dharna was organized here again. Even on January 5th it was not planned on the site. But when the dharna started, a chai-pakoda langar was organized by someone in one no time, and everyone came to eat. A langar is for everyone,” says Pal.
Pappu Mistri, who runs a puncture shop near the flyover, says vehicles are rushing onto the flyover again. More vehicles means he can expect more than his usual number of 15-20 customers per day. Life is almost back to “normal” now, he says. Almost. “I keep hearing Piareana’s name on television.”