In the English literature class at The Doon School, Charles Dickens was the favoured author of our teachers. As a pupil, I found the sombre depiction of 19th century England and cruelty to children — the two motifs of Dickensian novels — rather depressing. But there was one particular quote from David Copperfield that had a profound impact on my young psyche. The quote was from Wilkins Micawber, a jovial character, who often advised others, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen (pounds) nineteen (shillings) and six (pence), result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”. In a simple manner, Dickens had conveyed that those who don’t live within one’s means are doomed to misery.
I never hoped I would see the exemplification of Micawber’s principle in the form of the utter decline of my beloved homeland, Punjab. But regrettably, this is what has happened.
With a direct debt of over Rs 1 lakh crore, Punjab has the ignominious distinction of being one of the most indebted states in the country. Wilkins Micawber’s happy-go-lucky attitude was tempered by his wife’s more pragmatic advice, whose favourite refrain was “Experintia docet”, that is, experience is the best teacher. Unfortunately, Punjab has refused to learn from experience and instead has cultivated a false sense of braggadocio, which will only hasten its descent to a nadir from where retrieval may be impossible.
The joke is on us
The manner in which the current dispensation has been going all over the state in an effort to highlight Punjab’s ruddy finances and growth and clear the dismal misconception would have been an amusing instance, if it concerned a foreign nation. It is more ridiculous than the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes — where in reality, the emperor was naked, but tragically the joke is on us. We are unable to pay salaries to our employees on time, our industrial sector is moribund, our debts have reached monstrous proportions, our GDP growth rate has been consistently below the national level, our agricultural produce struggles to compete even at the national level, our soil, water and culture have become polluted to the point of dangerous toxicity, and we still want the world to think all is well.
I don’t want to cite too many statistics, I have done that in the past and the erudite write-up of Dr Kesar Singh Bhangoo in Hindustan Times a few days ago highlights the facetiousness of the government’s claims. I will only say that this doom hasn’t come upon us in one day. It is ironic that whereas 1991 is the point from where the rest of India’s economy started doing well, Punjab’s economy started going down. It is not difficult to see why.
In a pre-liberalised economy, Punjab had a near monopoly as the single biggest supplier of foodgrains in an autocratic and impoverished India. Our state could coerce the Centre to pay anything and the continuous increase in minimum support price ensured that we did not have to work too hard.
Similarly, in the pre-globalised world, our small and medium scale industry could get away with systemic and operational inefficiencies without the fear of being rendered uncompetitive. With our agriculture and industry remunerative enough, we never realised that the world around us was changing, that traditional agriculture would give way to modern wcultivation techniques, different crop patterns and a flourishing food-processing industry.
We also failed to see that in the absence of removing infrastructure glitches and adding huge capital dosages, our industry would fail to do well. And worst, we never felt the need to invest in human capital, even when in 1991, the evidence was clear that within two decades India (and, therefore, Punjab as well) would have the world’s largest youth population with a median age of 29 years.
While we failed to rejig our economic model as states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana stole a march over us, we exacerbated our conditions by a reckless fiscal profligacy — which, dare I say, is a function of unpardonable political expediency. Remember, this is a state which in the 1960s was growing at close to 9% per annum, almost two-three times the national GDP growth rates. Isn’t it tragic that the GDP growth situation has now almost reversed with the rest of India outperforming Punjab?
But far from realising it, we seem to wallow in self-pity. Nostalgia usually brings in memories, but when I think of Punjab and of Micawber from my school text, it is grossly unpleasant for me to be reminiscent of yet another quote of his that describes my beloved state’s current state of affairs. Talking of his misfortune wreaked upon himself due to his action, Micawber says, “Welcome misery, welcome homelessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end.”
It is this misplaced confidence, the latest examples of which are these presentations being organised by the state that has brought Punjab to its ruin. It appears that we shall never learn and that is the real tragedy for Punjab.
(The writer is People’s Party of Punjab president and former state finance minister. Views expressed are personal.)
Tomorrow: Prof Nirvikar Singh, University of California, Santa Cruz, US