ATOP sit 35-year-old Deepak Kumar and Rakesh Kumar, 30. Below wait at least 30 police personnel, 8-10 members of the National Disaster Response Force, two ambulances and two fire tenders.
Atop Deepak and Rakesh “hardly stir”. Below, the officials say that gives them little comfort.
As the protest by the two unemployed teachers of Punjab for a government job, on a 100-ft-high mobile tower near Punjab Bhawan in Chandigarh, nears nearly a month, sustaining it is not just their resolve but also the officialdom gathered around them.
The fatigue is setting in. Sighs a police constable, “From the day the two climbed up, we are deputed here in 12-hour shifts. So many resources are being wasted. If the authorities allow us to climb the tower, we will teach them a lesson. But the seniors are soft.”
Apart from ensuring Deepak and Rakesh do not try anything untoward, the 15 personnel of the Chandigarh police and as many from the Punjab Police must also see to it that they are not joined by other protesters. The constable says they have also been instructed to keep out the members of the union — ETPUTU or Elementary Teachers Training Teachers Eligibility Test Pass Unemployed Teachers Union — to which the two belong.
Four police personnel are deployed at the foot of the mobile tower. The others keep a weary watch from near the Punjab Bhawan.
The news has spread. Vehicles going past slow down while pedestrians crane their necks to catch a glance. However, while Deepak and Rakesh entertained the crowds the first day with slogans, now they don’t bother. Finding that the two are barely visible, people drive off.
It was sometime around 3 am on November 3 that Deepak from Fazilka and Rakesh of Gurdaspur made their way into the Punjab Bhawan compound and up the top of the tower.
The two have been seeking a job for three years. Rakesh has been working as a mechanic, while his wife who cleared the teachers’ eligibility test recently got a government job. Deepak, the sole breadwinner of his family, works as a labourer earning around
Rs 300 a day. Both have two children each.
Punjab Bhawan is in a high-security zone, surrounded by residences of Punjab and Haryana chief ministers, and often host to official meetings of ministers. As per the police, the two sneaked into Punjab Bhawan on the evening of November 2 while a function was being held by Madan Mohan Mittal, Punjab Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Health & Family Welfare. With a number of people milling around without much checking, nobody noticed Deepak and Rakesh as they got in with bags stuffed with sheets, blankets, bottles of water, biscuits, and one mobile phone with two power banks.
At night, they perched themselves on the platform built on mobile towers for workers to conduct repairs, hung a black sheet on one side, stacked their bags on the other, and hoisted a white banner of the teachers’ union highlighting their demand.
According to the ETPUTU, earlier, Rakesh and Deepak along with two other teachers had protested for five days atop a water tank in Badal village in district Bathinda.
Here, food has been supplied to them twice since they climbed up. The first time was around a week after the start of the protest. Then, for a few days, the two went on a hunger strike. On November 21, after a meeting of the union representatives was fixed with Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, rotis and vegetables along with two bottles of water were sent up to them with the help of a turntable ladder of one of the fire tenders at the spot.
The ETPUTU president, A S Kamboj, says Rakesh and Deepak are left with half a litre of water and a packet of biscuit now.
Desraj, an Emergency Medical Technician deputed with an ambulance at the tower, says that at daybreak, the two get up, stand and stretch for a few minutes. Then, they relax. “Most of the time they are covered with blankets and there is little movement… Often one sits and the other sleeps,” Desraj says.
Deployed on a six-hour shift, he adds, “I don’t know how they are surviving. The weather has become colder, there isn’t much space on the platform.”
An off-duty police personnel going by on a motorcycle stops to enquire about the two: “Are they still there? They have not come down?” Driving away, he says government policies force people to protest like this. “Some provision should be made for jobs.”
Rakesh and Deepak have been using the polythene bags and tissues they carried up to relieve themselves. Two women constables complain the two throw these bags down.
“The two must be stinking by now, the way they are living. Their family members must be worried. They should come down and protest,” says one.
No one from the two families has visited the two protesters, though. Approached by The Sunday Express, the families directed all questions to the union.
To preserve the battery, Rakesh and Deepak keep the phone with them switched off. Once a day, for 2-3 minutes, they switch it on to talk to the union.
Kamlesh, who works at a tea stall nearby, wonders at the people who stop by to click selfies against the tower. “They ask questions like what the two eat, how they stay up. How do we know all this? We just sell tea. However, business has dropped. Earlier, a lot of meetings used to be held at the Punjab Bhawan and security guards and drivers with the officials would have tea here. These days officials are not coming,” she laments.
Three contractual employees deputed at the Punjab Bhawan turn up at the stall. A discussion follows on how it is not right on part of teachers to do this. One of the employees, refusing to be named, says, “All contractual employees will start protesting thus.”
Glancing in the direction of the tower, another employee says Rakesh and Deepak seem to be “professional protesters”, given their staying power.
Says Poonam Dilawari, Station House Office of Sector 3 Police Station, “I have tried talking to them. After taking their union leaders into confidence, I went to them with the help of the turntable ladder. But they are adamant and are not ready to listen to reason. The high court has already taken suo motu notice of the issue. But they say they should be given appointment letters first.”
Kamboj says Rakesh and Deepak were left with little choice but to do this due to poverty and helplessness. Around 600 people who have finished their elementary teachers’ training course and cleared the teachers’ eligibility test have not got government jobs despite vacancies, he claims. “The two are representing the union and we are their family now.”