The debate on the need for a federal structure in our country is as old as free India. In the days immediately after Independence, many people were inclined towards giving the Centre sweeping powers so as to ensure a smooth transition from colonial rule to self-rule. But if that argument ever had any relevance, it has since long been lost.
It hardly needs emphasis that strong states mean a strong India. After all, India is the sum total of its parts - its states and a few territories governed directly by the Centre. Plus, the state governments are in a much better position to understand and address the peculiar problems of their people which differ not only from zone to zone but even from state to state. In one meeting of the National Development Council after another, chief ministers from all states have cut across party lines to demand greater fiscal powers to the states. Each state has problems different from those of others.
The time has now arrived to give a fresh look to our Constitution to make it genuinely federal in character. The top-down approach has already failed and it is time to work from the grassroots upwards.
Fortunately, there is a refreshing awareness in the new political and administrative establishment in the country about the need to free the states from the constricting bondage of central planning. Among the first steps taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to disband the Planning Commission and replace it with a more decentralised body, Niti Aayog, with greater say to chief ministers in the task of national planning. There is a realisation now that the impact of all central planning has finally to be borne by the state governments and they must be taken on board while taking decisions on development plans.
This is an extremely welcome sign. Some progress is also being made on the reallocation of resources between the Centre and the states. The states have been demanding 50% share in taxes collected from the states. The first step in this direction seems to have been taken, and hopefully it will be taken further.
All in all, for the first time, some concrete progress is in evidence towards “cooperative federalism”, a term first used by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in 1975. We now have this satisfaction that our stand has been vindicated – if only in principle.
In addition to this general issue of federalism, there is also the question of special problems faced by states because of peculiar factors such as historical and geographical-locational. Punjab has historically been the sword arm and the granary of the nation. Its fiercely patriotic and proud people have always made unparalleled sacrifices for securing and preserving the country’s freedom.
When the country got freedom, Punjab’s travails continued unabated. More than five lakh people lost their lives and about 1.5 crore lost their homes, lands and properties in the most massive and painful migration in human history. Almost all fertile lands of Punjab were left behind in Pakistan.
These are not mere history academics or political rhetoric. These are the harsh economic and ground realities that Punjab has had to fight in its march to recovery. Any other people would have taken centuries to emerge from such blows. But Punjabis endured it all with grit in the overall national interest.
For all this, Punjabis were sadly in for a special treatment of another kind – discrimination: religious, political, economic and geographical. I need not elaborate each example of injustice done to Punjab, which remains without its capital and cries out for just adjudication on river waters issues on the nationally and internationally accepted riparian principle – the latter being the lifeline of the people. The situation has been rendered so complex and difficult that the problems still continue to defy solutions.
The farmers of Punjab came to the country’s rescue during the days of food shortage and starvation - with one of the most dramatic instances of an economic turnaround ever witnessed in history - not only ridding the country of the disgrace of a begging bowl but also turning India into a food-exporting country.
But in the process, they sacrificed the only two natural resources they had: soil fertility and water. Today, Punjab’s farmers face a grim scenario, with the water table constantly falling and no national policy in sight to help them shift gainfully from traditional crop patterns to alternative crops. Agriculture is no longer a lucrative profession. On the contrary, it does not make even for the bare investments of farmers. As a result, more and more farmers are driven to give up farming.
Punjab has a strong case for a special package to help it emerge from the various blows it has suffered for reasons beyond its control. A huge burden has been put on the state even for the costs of maintaining peace and communal harmony during the most challenging period of militancy.
In addition, the state has a special natural claim on special treatment, being a land-locked border state situated on a long, live and hostile border. The locational disadvantages the state suffers in terms of distance from heartland markets also need to be factored in while deciding on an economic package for Punjab.
Sometimes, it is argued that Punjab does not deserve a special package because it is already a prosperous state. And that is just about the only argument held out against giving us our due. And it is a strange argument. People who forward this argument perhaps confuse development with prosperity. Through its own efforts and through sheer hard work of its people, Punjab has led other states in the march to development and progress. Must that be viewed as a sin? Must Punjab be punished for its efficiency? Should Punjab have remained a backward state in order to get what it deserves? Is there a premium only on not working hard and remaining a backward state?
Besides, progress has its costs no less heavy than backwardness. For instance, Punjab built an elaborate canal system entirely at its own expense. This system supports the national food security as a lifeline. But it is nearly a century-old now and needs rejuvenation for full utilisation of its potential. For that, we need help, and it will be a help finally for a national cause – food security. Even going by the development logic, Punjab should – if anything – be rewarded for setting trends for the country’s march to the developed world. And that will serve as an incentive for other states to develop faster. What we have been doing so far is putting a premium on lethargy and backwardness, and that can only help in developing a stake in remaining backward.
All laws and principles of economy, sociology and psychology tell us that two kinds of children deserve special attention: one, the disadvantaged, and two, the specially gifted. Punjab deserves that special treatment on both counts. We are a people who inherited the greatest disadvantages in 1947 and continue to have locational disadvantages as a land-locked border state.
And we deserve it also for our efficiency. But in all cases, it must be kept in mind that the state deserves special focus from every possible standpoint.
There are also some who raise doubt over our fiscal management and refer to what they call “doles” to farmers and the poorer sections, including the backward and Scheduled Castes (SC) in our state. First of all, we deserve to be treated as a special case because Punjab has the highest density of SC population.
Against all odds
But regarding our fiscal prudence, we are performing better than most states and even the Centre in managing our revenues and expenditure. We have drastically reduced the debt-to-GSDP (gross state domestic product) ratio from nearly 47%, which we had inherited, to about 32% now. And our income support to farmers in the power sector is a much-needed investment in our economy and for the cause of national food security.
Punjab has progressed not because of any special favours from any quarters but because of the sheer grit, determination and the enterprising nature of our people – and despite disadvantages which no other state faced.
We all know that concessions given to Punjab’s neighbouring states have deal a crippling blow to our economy, resulting not only in fresh investments drying up but also in a major flight of capital from the state to greener pastures provided by these concessions to other states.
We are not against any concessions being given to our neighbouring states, whom we regard as our brethren. All we have been advocating is that Punjab has an even stronger case for the same concessions, and a special package in view of its huge locational and other disadvantages.
Historically, Punjabis are enterprising people and have often laughed in the face of adversity. It is wrong to have punished them for this trait.
We are hopeful that the emerging trends towards federalism would also translate into undoing the injustice done to the state in the past.