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Punjab has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The state, once known as the pioneer of the green revolution, has been under the spotlight because of its drug problem. There may be differences in the estimates of the youth population addicted to drugs, but most agree that it is very high and the situation has reached a crisis point. The issue is, therefore, not the extent of drug addiction; it is why the youth in Punjab are increasingly being drawn to drugs.

While there have been cultural and social explanations for this tendency, the fact remains that successive governments have not only ignored the issue, but may have actively or passively contributed to this menace. This issue is not just an issue of governance failure; it is a symptom of a larger problem in rural areas. The real problem is unemployment or lack of alternative jobs for the majority of youth in Punjab.

The state, once known for its industrious and entrepreneurial farmers, was among the first success stories of the green revolution in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Since the 1980s, the state has consistently been among states with the highest per capita incomes. But the last two decades have also seen Punjab lag behind most states in agricultural growth rates. Not only have the yield and productivity of major crops stagnated, declining incomes in agriculture due to falling land holdings and a deteriorating natural resource situation have meant that few among the youth seem interested in pursuing agriculture. The deterioration of soil quality and declining water tables due to unhindered ground water extraction have led to a rise in the cost of cultivation. With mechanization almost reaching a saturation point, labour use in agriculture has declined to the detriment of workers hitherto employed in agriculture. The worsening of the agrarian situation in Punjab has also been evident from farmer suicides, still a small number but a phenomenon unheard of prior to the 1990s.

Punjab is a classic case of a state failing to diversify into the non-farm sector despite high agricultural productivity. This was partly a result of the failure of local industries in Ludhiana and elsewhere to cope with an open and liberalized Indian economy, but was aided and abetted by the failure of state governments to create and support such industries. The excessive focus on agriculture has also been evident in the state government spending more on subsidizing farming through free electricity and other incentives rather than encouraging employment diversification.

With migration abroad slowing in recent years and lack of alternative employment opportunities within the state, the problem of employment has only gone from bad to worse. There are now enough anecdotal as well as field studies documenting the crisis in Punjab’s agriculture and the associated employment problem among the youth. The process of ‘depeasantization’ has led to a situation where the farming community is increasingly moving out of agriculture and yet, only a few among agricultural labourers have managed to find some manual work. A majority of the cultivating castes and groups are still averse to manual labour and have not been able to find work in the non-farm sector.

But this problem is not unique to Punjab. While it has led to a perverse outcome in Punjab, the fact remains that a majority of the cultivating caste groups are now finding it difficult to retain the young in agriculture. The changing economic situation and the lack of employment opportunities have led to situations of unrest, for instance, in the form of campaigns for reservation in government jobs. The recent agitations demanding government job quotas by Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra are a manifestation of the worsening employment and income opportunities in agriculture. Unfortunately, this has taken place in states that are among those with the highest per capita incomes, but also those that experienced a rapid transformation of their agriculture. Most of these states have failed to create enough employment opportunities in the non-farm sector despite acceleration of their economic growth rates.

This is a larger problem that the economy has been facing for the last two decades. The fact that the economy created only 2 million jobs per year between 2004-05 and 2011-12, a phase of high growth, has already been noted. This was clearly insufficient to take care of the new entrants to the labour market, combined with a 35 million strong labour force moving out of agriculture. Employment creation will remain the single biggest challenge for the economy. Even by a conservative estimate, the National Skill Development Corporation expects at least 25 million workers to move away from agriculture in the next seven years. Along with new entrants to the labour force to the tune of 85 million workers, the minimum that the government needs to do is create 20 million jobs per year. As against this, in the last two years, the economy has created only 700,000 jobs, almost 50% of which were in textiles alone.

The problem of drug addiction in Punjab is not an issue of law and order. While it certainly has been aided and abetted by the governments of the day, the issue is an economic one. This issue needs a wider debate on a strategy to gainfully employ both the youth who are moving out of agriculture and the new entrants to the labour force.

The menace of drug addiction is only a symptom of the larger malaise afflicting our economic policy which has failed to create adequate employment opportunities. Such incidents of unrest are now finding an echo in other states as well and it is high time the central government came out with a strategy to tackle the unemployment problem. Unfortunately, there is hardly a recognition of the problem, leave alone a strategy to deal with it.

Himanshu is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.

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