Is Punjab evidence of the inefficacy of the “trickle down” theory? While proponents of India’s liberalization efforts have long theorized that if you take care of the top of the pyramid, the benefits will eventually trickle down to the bottom, the evolution of India’s granary state suggests that all may not be well with that theory. On a recent trip through parts of the state, I was struck by how poorly the green revolution-induced affluence of the state in the 1960s and 1970s had been deployed to create lasting institutions and infrastructure.
The nature of the family emergency was such that I had to board one of the state administration buses that ply from the decrepit Kashmiri Gate Inter State Bus Terminal in the capital, en route to Chandigarh. The first shock comes when you look at the stark, bare and denuded landscape along the highway. The perennially under-construction toll road cuts through the heart of the rural heartland. The surroundings are ugly and unappealing to the eye. Instead of a green cover there are grey buildings of flatted sheds and dubious sounding technical colleges that dot the fields like so many ugly protuberances. It is dry season in the North, so you expect some level of aridity. But miles and miles of rural hinterland with not a blade of green still comes as a shock. Punjab’s area under forest as percentage of total land area is a meager 5.04% as compared to 23.41% for the country and a world average of 31%.
The dhabas, such a ubiquitous part of the Punjab landscape, have all but disappeared to be replaced by monstrosities like Barista and Dosa Plaza and Café Heritage, fast food places which defy the very essence of leisured journeys. And there is KFC, in the land of butter chicken and tandoori murg! Along the route makeshift godowns stock mounds of grain covered with tarpaulins but otherwise open to the elements. This is India’s food shame.
We pass the Tangri, a seasonal river just off Ambala. It is bone dry now as are most of the other water bodies in the state.
The countryside is for most nations a relief for the eye and the soul. Indeed, such is the British pride in their much vaunted countryside that the Olympic Stadium for the 2012 games is to be transformed into a giant British meadow replete with farms and farm animals. The rural idyll that is sought to be created is a piece with the prettiness of the English countryside which makes a drive through such a pleasure. On the other hand, a peripatetic driver, if such a breed still exists, would find little to excite him by way of inviting country roads leading off the NH 21 from Delhi to Chandigarh passing in parts through Punjab and Haryana.
Time was when this same drive was through a road with tall eucalyptus trees on both sides. Today the trees have been hacked down for ever increasing roads surface. It’s a metaphor for the state. Myopic and short-sighted pursuit of development with immediate commercial objectives, leading eventually to the kind of pockmarked state Punjab is today.
The state is already a case study for man-made ecological disasters. Covering only 1.5% of India’s land, today the state produces nearly 20% of the nation’s wheat and 12% of its rice. But this dual cropping has come at great cost. The indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers to maintain high yields along with that of vast quantities of electricity to pump ever declining groundwater from greater and greater depths has had a disastrous impact. The water table in the state has been dropping at an alarming rate. Between 1982 and 1987, the water table in central Punjab was falling at an average of 18 cm per year. That accelerated to a staggering 75 cm during 2002-06. Water tables are now falling over about 90% of the state, with central Punjab most severely affected. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report states that about 12% of Punjab state suffers from the threat of desertification.
Just 10 years ago 85% of the wheat bought by the government came from the twin states of Punjab and Haryana. Today that’s down to 60% because other states have stepped up production. What’s worse Punjab has been left behind in terms of adopting new payment processes including the ease and integrity of transferring payments directly to the farmers’ bank accounts. As the leading producer of grain the state hasn’t even led the way in food storage and delivery systems which should have been an obvious area.
This lack of vision has meant that a state whose per capita income in the 1970 was comparable with that of some of the Asian tigers, has been unable to make any impact in real terms on the lives of people. The false spring of high per capita income, soon gave way to the lost decades of the 1980s when the state was afflicted by militancy. That unfortunate era was followed by two wasted decades with high unemployment and illiteracy driving the state’s youth towards despair. The result of this inability to convert initial success into socially relevant long term programs is that in areas like infant mortality, school enrolment, women’s health, the state isn’t any more among the leaders in India.
A 2007-08 Punjab Industrial Review by Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Saumitra Chaudhuri and Samrat Sidhu says, “Punjab’s industrial performance up to the end of the 1980s was much better than that of the country as a whole.” Ironically, when the winds of liberalization started blowing over the rest of the country, Punjab lost its way. An early leader in the auto-component sector, when post liberalization the sector grew rapidly, the state was one of the big losers. You just have to compare the huge success of Amul in dairy products with that of the 38-year-old Punjab State Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation Limited called Milfed, a relative unknown outside the state.
What’s worse is that the inability by successive governments to provide the right leadership and the framework of reform, has led to a whole host of social problems. Heroin-fueled drug addiction is rampant, with an alarming 40% of the state’s youth and 48% of its farmers and laborers, suffering from it according to one recent report. The state is also host to some of the most disease prone districts in the country for instance Bathinda and Muktsar in terms of cancer.
Where state resources should have gone into ensuring the 100% literacy level that any developed country aspires to, Punjab languishes in its literacy levels. Nearly 42% of the labour force on the state is illiterate.
Time is running out for Punjab. It held the top position in per capita income among the major states at the beginning of the nineties, but today it is down to sixth. Given it base of agriculture as well as the fact that 50% of industrial production in the state comes from the small scale sector, its tax base is very narrow and tax compliance is very low. This has forced successive governments to resort to public debt as a means of running the state. That option is increasingly unviable.
Of course, the years lost to militancy probably account for some of the loss in the growth momentum. That however cannot absolve the political and administrative machinery. Even though militancy had subsided by the mid-1990s, there was no game plan in place to ensure that new seeds sprouted. It is my misfortune to have grown up in another city – Calcutta in the 1970s – where a militant movement ate away at the very spirit of the pulsating city and turned it increasingly into a narrow-minded place confused between its rich past and a barren future. Punjab’s drug-addled youth constantly looking overseas for deliverance suffer from a lack of direction. Anyone who can provide that will be the next big Punjabi hero.