In a year from now the border state of Punjab would be in the midst of its most crucial electoral battle, a fight that would determine whether the state would embark on a long haul for returning to the path of holistic governance or descend into further chaos. Political change in the state is almost a given now after the coming elections, but the nature of that change is critical for various reasons.
However, before talking about the alternatives for the state, it may be much more appropriate to remind readers the reasons for the collapse of the state under the Akali-BJP government that has been ruling the state for the last decade.
First, the economic and fiscal crisis has turned Punjab into one the most indebted and debt-stressed states in the country. By the end of the 2015-16, the state would be in debt to the tune of $18.79 billion (1 dollar=Rs 66) approximately. Ten years ago, in the last year of the then Congress government, it stood at $7.73 billion.
The debt constitutes over 30% of the Gross State Domestic Product. Twenty one per cent of all revenue receipts go towards servicing it. While the government would like to blame it on the legacy liability of fighting terrorism, it needs to be remembered that active militancy in the state ended way back in 1995. The current situation is a result of economic mismanagement, financial licentiousness and crass populism over the past decade. With a committed interest liability of $1.5 billion per year, Punjab is caught in a debt trap. This has demolished business sentiment, leading to a flight of capital from the state.
Second, the agrarian crisis. Agriculture, the principal occupation of the people, is no longer a remunerative vocation. As I had earlier pointed out in these columns, conventional wisdom holds that 84% of the farmers own less than five acres of land. A family of four or five toiling ceaselessly on a three-acre plot of land can in a good year at best make about Rs 19,350 per month but if there is any unnatural occurrence, there can be a severe drop in income for farmers. A recent example is the whitefly pest attack in southern Punjab that led to dozens of cotton farmers committing suicide.
Third is the narcotisation of the state that has wiped out a generation of young adults. Punjab lost a generation to terror between 1980 and 1995 and is now losing another to drugs. The state apparatus from the highest echelons to the lowest functionaries are allegedly deeply entrenched in the production, sale and proliferation of synthetic drugs. Over 75% of the youth in the state is addicted to one fatal psychotropic substance or the other.
The fourth is the complete subversion of the law enforcement machinery of the state. It started with police sub-divisions being made congruent to assembly constituencies and the in-charge of the sub-division (usually a deputy superintendent of police) being appointed on the recommendation of the ruling party MLA or its defeated candidates designated as the constituency in-charge. The police hierarchy has been obliterated with the deputy chief minister, who is also the scion of the ruling oligarchy, giving instructions directly to police station heads who are usually in the rank of assistant sub-inspectors of police. This subversion of the structure of the uniformed forces has converted the Punjab Police into a virtual front organisation for the Akali Dal-BJP government.
Latest reports suggest even development funding is now being arbitrarily outsourced to elected and defeated political activists of the ruling combine, bypassing all established channels of the civil administration.
The fifth challenge is the sudden resurgence of the separatist fringe in the state. The mishandling of the sacrilege issue as well as the controversy on the question of a religious pardon granted to the head of Dera Sacha Sauda has provided space to the hardliners to reassert themselves. There has always been a minuscule but vocal minority that has clung to the dream of a separate Sikh homeland, mistakenly believing and erroneously propagating that when India was partitioned in 1947, the Hindus got Hindustan, the Muslims got Pakistan but the Sikhs got a raw deal. Their intermittent dormancy should not be misconstrued as permanent redundancy as they have a resonance with some influential elements of the Sikh diaspora that provide both moral and material support to their activities. This phenomenon will be more visibly seen this time around.
Sixth, recent revelations about alleged fake encounters during the decade-and-a-half of extremism that points a finger at certain officers of the Punjab Police. If these revelations are correct, then those involved would have to face the legal system because state terrorism cannot be accepted. It is a travesty that officers facing heinous criminal charges for gross human rights abuse continue to occupy the highest positions in the state police. In addition to the domestic turmoil, Punjab is also a frontline border state that is always in Pakistan’s cross hairs, as can be seen in the Pathankot outrage.
What Punjab requires at the moment is resuscitation of the normal governance processes. It can ill afford to experiment with the AAP’s ochlocracy that is on display in Delhi. There is only one template for decent governance in Punjab: A competent administrator that can run the state and impartially protect its interests.
Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister from Punjab
The views expressed are personal