The causes for the downward slide of Punjab are multidimensional. Punjab's three great assets have been abundant good-quality water, fertile land, and people with a never-say-die attitude. In a sustained and systematic manner, we have managed to degrade this triad.
Successive governments in Punjab have contributed to this slide. It would be in order to look at some of the other ills that have engulfed the state. Its finances are mismanaged grossly. To balance its profligacy, the government property worth Rs 3,533 crore has been mortgaged or sold.
This ever-increasing debt will have to be paid by the future generations. Corruption is endemic and stands embedded in the people's DNA. Nothing seems to get done in a government office without greasing palms, and there's a gap between promise and performance, and between planning and progress.
Playing with water
Not long ago, Punjab's water was healthy, pure and containing most of the essential minerals. We destroyed this great asset in multiple ways. Overused pesticides and chemicals percolated down with rainwater; and combined with untreated water (that also polluted rivers) dumped into the ground to render the subsoil water unfit for drinking.
Thermal-energy plants spew toxic fly ash that settles over vast areas. Rainwater washes down large dumps of this coal ash at powerhouses, and mixes its toxicity with the groundwater. Punjab's rivers carry industrial effluents and other untreated factory waste from Himachal Pradesh as well into groundwater.
The waters of the Beas and Sutlej rivers were carried to Rajasthan through the Gung and Indira canals and stored year round for drinking. Now Rajasthan has complained that the waters of these canals are unfit even for irrigation.
Free and unmetered electricity to farmers has encouraged them to take to sowing water-guzzling paddy. This excessive drawing on subsoil water has lowered the water table to dangerous levels. Further south, large tracts in Bathinda, Muktsar, and Malout etc. are waterlogged, and the government appears to have no viable solution.
The net result of the excessive use of pesticides and chemicals, spewing of toxic fly ash from a large number of coal-fired powerhouses, dumping of industrial waste and untreated sewage into the subsoil groundwater, and subsequent consumption of this water has put pesticides into the blood stream of a good percentage of the population on the one hand and brought the advent of the curse of cancer on the other.
A dangerously low water table will affect the survival of trees eventually. Suspended fly-ash particles in the air affect its quality and cause respiratory diseases and other health problems.
Punjab's limited land has been under unmitigated pressure in many ways. First is its overexploitation through the wheat and paddy cycle and the excessive use of pesticides. Unplanned, haphazard and indiscriminate expansion of towns and villages has resulted in good agricultural land being lost forever. Instead of raising high-rise buildings, plots are being cut and even owners of a few acres being allowed to raise residential colonies because there is so much money to be made in granting sanction for the "change of land use".
Thousands of acres of common village lands (Shamlat land) and even forestlands have been doled out to politicians, bureaucrats and policemen, or simply grabbed by the same set of people. Land grab by the powerful and the well connected is the order of the day. Land prices have been jacked up artificially to levels that have made acquiring land for industry unviable.
Driving out industry
Unsupportive attitude of the government has driven out most industry, leave alone the new ones coming in. Given the Indian businessmen's penchant to cut corners, the recently policy of "self certification" on most of the imperatives for building new industry is a trap for later harassment by petty officials on the grounds of flaws in self-certification.
Instead of a large number of coal-fired power projects that spew toxic fly ash, a tie-up with Himachal Pradesh for joint hydroelectricity projects was a better option that was never explored. Projects of residential colonies, towns and industrial estates are the new tools and pools of corruption.