Punjabis and pessimism seldom walk together. The world knows us as strong, brave, hard-working, forward-looking, patriotic people who go out in search of lions to challenge them in their den. This is the reality.
But Punjab has also been a victim of a vilification campaign. A perception is being created that Punjabis are ruined on the fronts of health (drug addicts), economy (bankrupt), character (terrorists, rapists), reckless, poor at governance, so on and so forth. I wish to take you through this deep web of false perceptions.
NOT SO LITERARY
I must confess that as far as academics go, I am neither a man of literature nor of philosophy, nor even of history.
When it comes to arguing with the self-appointed intellectual elite in Punjab’s political circles, I am at a bigger disadvantage: I do not believe that poetry or fiction can help us understand problems of economy, especially when people with the so-called literary minds display a superficial understanding of even these aesthetic assets. How else does one explain the sight of a historian-turned-economist-turned-politician-turned-conscience-keeper of Punjab using a “jovial” character like Wilkins Micawber as his role model to teach economics to the people?
My knowledge of English fiction is not so limited that I would need to learn 21st-century economics from a 19th-century comedy figure, or make ‘Welcome Misery’ budget speeches. Give me a break. Punjab can do without Micawbers.
LET’S BE LITERAL
The need is to move away from half-baked culture of English-medium literates, and talk about the incontrovertible facts.
The perception created is that the present government has broken the fiscal back of Punajb. The reality is that the state’s debt growth rate has come down drastically since the SAD-BJP took over, and we are ranked 10th among states,
far better than Haryana, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and many others.
Our debt-to-GSDP (gross state domestic product), which had reached 48.8% when we were in opposition, has been brought down to just 32% (2013-14). This ratio for the Government of India is more than twice that of Punjab, at 68.5%.
Besides, productive debt, to build infrastructure and boost investment, is an element of growth. Even countries like Japan (225%), US (92.7%) and Germany (74.3%) have high debt-to-GDP ratio. Punjab’s overall debt is far below that of many others.
WHAT WE DID, AND HOW
A large part of the problem with Punjab’s critics is about attitude. There is something un-Punjabi about it. And that is why they are not able to understand that Punjab has moved into a leadership position. We achieved this by focusing on bare essentials and fighting disadvantages that the state has — being landlocked, with a long international border — by improving connectivity.
We got the Mohali international airport project through, to add to the Amritsar airport. In the domestic sector, we got the Bathinda airport through; flights will start soon. Punjab today has the best air connectivity in the country. In addition, all major towns of the state will be connected with four- or six-lane expressways by the end of 2015. We also brought in 3G mobile network.
The first focus was on the power sector. Six decades after Independence, Punjab’s power generation stood at 6,200 MW.
In four years, we took it to 12,392 MW.
In the National Educational Development Index, Punjab was 14th, but is now among the three best states overall, behind Goa and Kerala, and the best among major states. Punjab’s performance in basic health infrastructure has been rated ‘Excellent’ by the Government of India.
There is an incredible rise in the state’s own resources too — from Rs 9,899 crore in 2007-08 when we assumed charge, to Rs 28,480 crore (2014-15 estimates). VAT collection has gone from Rs 5,136 crore in 2006-07 to Rs 20,410 crore.
Excise revenue was Rs 1,368 crore in 2006-07; it is Rs 4,600 crore in budget estimates for 2014-15.
With communal harmony, a crowning achievement of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab is seen as the most preferred investment destination.
NOT BIG-TICKET ALONE
And, if someone thinks the focus on development has only been big-ticket projects, here are some more facts.
Expenditure on general education went up from Rs 540 crore in 2002-07 to Rs 2,692 crore – an increase of 398%. Nowhere else in the country did you see this! The Punjab government is setting up a dedicated ‘Education City’ over 1,000 acres in New Chandigarh (Mullanpur).
It might cheer up, or sadden, the ‘Welcome Misery’ critics to know that Punjab has left Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and even the highly literacy-conscious Andhra Pradesh behind in per capita education expenditure, as per a Reserve Bank of India study. In health, the expenditure was just Rs 163 crore in 2002-07, but went up to Rs 465 crore in 2007-12. In addition to the massive governmental inputs for improving the quality of health care for the common people, the state now has world-class names in the sector. You name a premier name in health care, and it’s already here. A war on cancer is on, and Badal is personally monitoring its direction.
BEST pay, ‘FREE POWER’
It is hard to argue with people unwilling to see the dawn in a rising sun. The moment you tell them of one proud glory of Punjab, they dart away to come back with some other “welcome misery” scrap. “Power-sufficient?” they would say, “But Punjab employees are underpaid, even unpaid. Right?” Not right.
Punjab’s employees are in fact the highest-paid employees by far in the country. I hear the names of some states mentioned every morning, evening and night by the state’s critics. Let’s measure against them, with some examples. An ETT/primary teacher gets Rs 32,580 a month in Punjab. Gujarat, the critics’ favourite state, pays only Rs 19,820, Andhra Rs 19,391; Maharashtra Rs 22,720, Himachal Rs 22,940 and Tamil Nadu Rs 27,800. Punjab pays Rs 27,000 to a police constable; Maharashtra pays Rs 19,820, Haryana Rs 15,920, others even lower, with Gujarat lowest among them at Rs 14,000.
I am not counting the income support incentive we give to our farmers, which critics derisively call ‘free power’.
They refuse to see this as critical investment in the agriculture.
And, to those who think that the state government is incapable of understanding their wisdom on inclusive development, let me point towards the report of the Planning Commission that says Punjab’s performance in poverty alleviation is at number three, only behind Kerala and Goa.
LOSE YOUR SYNDROMES
A “laggard” economy cannot show the resilience reflected in the data; for instance in the phenomenal rise in the GSDP, from Rs 1.27 lakh crore in 2006-07 to Rs 3.17 lakh crore in 2013-14. It is expected to cross Rs 3.6 lakh crore in 2014-15. So comprehensive has been this march of economy in Punjab that I could go on and on with facts on economic resilience of our state.
But I request Punjab’s critics to emerge from their self-inflicted, chronic negativity on the one hand, and a Micawber syndrome on the other. Such violent fluctuations between extreme states of mind do not make for stable health — personal or physical.
More than anything else, I realise that this business of distorting perceptions on Punjab is not an economic exercise, but a political design. I beg the critics to target only me, our party or government for their political stakes, and not attack Punjab. It belongs to all of us, so let’s keep Punjab out of our petty squabbles.
(The writer is deputy chief minister of Punjab. Views expressed are personal.)