Guest Column: Punjab’s issues need attention: Tipping or turning point?
Speedier creation of jobs, an impetus to agriculture growth to take it to the next level of income generation, diversification of the rural economy, and better health and education services are some of the actions that are singularly different from other states and will make Punjab still a more prideful golden state of the country
Punjab is at a crossroads. The people of Punjab aspired and opted for change for truthful redressal of the issues impacting their life. They expressed issues in no unclear terms, but unfortunately, these are lost in the din to celebrate the gains of political power. The state’s political leadership and socio-economic experts are aware but do not decisively express and address these for the benefit of the common man. It is perhaps the bane of competitive politics.
The demand for Punjabi-speaking areas and the state’s capital of Chandigarh, provincial autonomy as expressed in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, redetermination of the state’s share in river waters, cancellation of the Sutlej Yamuna Link project, and non-interference in religious institutions are often repeated as issues of Punjab. The present generation may not be fully aware of these issues, though these have been and are the lifeline for some if not all of the political outfits in the state. Some fringe political groups also raise secessionist demands, though there is no popular support for it at any level, and the forces that perpetrated terrorism have been dealt with decisively.
Notwithstanding the political claims of public outcry, these issues need settlement. However, do they impact the quality of people’s lives? Do they impinge upon governance in the state? The delay in their resolution may have caused political upheaval and idiosyncratic violence but there has been no polarisation, and socio-economic bonding among Punjabis remains as strong as ever. Punjab has grown, though not as fast as it should have.
Growth and worrying issues
Despite these issues and historical shocks of the state’s bifurcation in 1947 and trifurcation in 1966, Punjab has had the advantage of early economic development. The pressing demand for food in the country compelled the national governments to focus more on the state to raise agriculture production with whatever it may cost. The state was the frontrunner in the Green Revolution and gave the country food security that is sustained even today despite many economic, ecological, and sustainability problems.
The agricultural growth and the resultant rise in household incomes fuelled growth in secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy. It also resulted in substantial improvement in urban and rural infrastructure. The state enjoyed the highest per-capita income, relatively better literacy and health standards, the largest rural and urban road network, and perhaps the best agri-marketing systems in the country. Even today, the state enjoys the highest per-capita agricultural productivity and incomes, better phone density, energy security, and quality socio-economic infrastructure.
However, in happiness ranking and ease of living, the state does not seem to be as good as it ought to be. The investments in secondary and tertiary sectors have not increased as much as they ought to, taking the state to a high trajectory of growth. The rising unemployment, stagnant farm household incomes, high farm household debt, widespread life-threatening diseases, and social evils such as abuse of intoxicating substances, female foeticide, brain drain, gangsterism, and violence are some of the worrying issues.
Social and economic issues
After the bifurcation in 1947, the territorial and linguistic issues remained quite pronounced in the state’s polity. For the first two decades, the vociferous claims of Punjabi Suba directed the politics. The trifurcation of the state in 1966 added new dimensions to inter-state territorial and water disputes. Over the years, these were exploited by extremists who did not stand to reason, diminished the life of a large number of Punjabis, and even soiled the Punjabi reputation of valour and sarbat-ka-bhala.
The unresolved political issues have, however, been surpassed by more pressing social and economic issues. Some of these have genesis in prosperity witnessed by the state during the last five decades, but hostilities from the neighbours across the international borders were no less responsible. Some political scientists blame the policies of the state and central governments for the present crisis of unemployment, economic distress of farmers, widespread life-threatening diseases such as cancer, drug abuse, and extremist and gangster violence. This may not be a correct perception, but the governments have failed to give a differential treatment deserved by the state for many pressing historical, socio-cultural, and economic reasons. The state should have remained more disciplined and transparent in its political governance and financial management, and the central governments should have risen above politics.
Transition to aspirational politics
Punjab does not need special constitutional provisions, but its economic demands and financial stresses are different, requiring different treatment, which may appear unusual to those who have not experienced management of issues in the development of a prosperous state. Speedier creation of jobs, an impetus to agriculture growth to take it to the next level of income generation, diversification of the rural economy, and better health and education services are some of the actions that are singularly different from other states and will make Punjab still a more prideful golden state of the country.
The new generation politicians who are voted to power in the state promised to attend to these emerging issues. They have guaranteed and expressed policy ambitions, some of which may not even be sustainable. However, the common man is waiting, and the youth is restless. The transition from conventional to new aspirational politics that began in 2017 and culminated in 2022, was a turning point, but will it prove to be the tipping point for effective resolution of issues to make the state still better? Else, it may not be difficult for the radicals to push it back to a situation akin to the dark days of the eighties and early nineties. The people of Punjab expect the generational shift in government to yield better appreciation and early resolution of genuine issues to improve their quality of life.
The writer is a retired Punjab cadre IAS officer. Views expressed are personal