Amritsar: As you enter Amritsar, what strikes you immediately is the sign stating the distance to the Atari village close to the border—27 kilometres. That’s less than the distance from Delhi’s central hub Connaught Place to suburban Gurugram. No wonder that a Pakistan overhang pervades across this border city that is celebrating 550 years of Sikh saint Guru Nanak’s birth and also marking 100 years of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Don’t expect voter turnout to be very high in the state. In 2014, it was 70.61% (up from 69.8% in 2009) but this time around it could dip. People are just too weary of coping with the demands of living in a state that appears to have been pushed to the margins of the country’s collective consciousness.

Talk to the Uber and Ola drivers and they tell you they are lucky to get two-three passengers a day. That’s why they are willing to put their app off and wait for you, no matter how long it takes. In any case, the driving is just a holding operation until something else turns up. The chances of that are unlikely in a state where the unemployment rate among those in the 18-29 age group is 16% as against the Indian average of 10.2%. “Elections don’t help. In the path of development we have chosen, the state has surrendered to the market. Political parties can’t give jobs. The best they can do is to create conditions that can help people seek jobs," says Pramod Kumar, director of the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication (IDC).

Those “conditions", i.e. the reskilling apparatus, is sorely missing and young people are left to fend for themselves, resulting in the scourge of drugs. Adding to that is the military tensions between India and Pakistan, the impact of which is most acutely felt in this border state. Since 16 February this year when India withdrew most-favoured nation status for Pakistan, trade between the two countries has almost ground to a halt, rendering 1,700 labourers jobless.

As if that’s not bad enough, a 2 May ban on growing high rise crops along the border has come as a body blow for farmers. On that date, the district magistrate-cum-deputy commissioner of Fazilka, Manpreet Singh Chhatwal, issued a prohibitory order forbidding the cultivation of Bt cotton, corn, ghawra, jawar, sugarcane, sarro, toria, suraj mukhi and other high rise crops in the fields adjoining the Pakistan border. The reason given is that “there is every possibility of infiltrators crossing the Indo-Pak border in the shadow of these high rise crops".

Voter apathy

Punjab’s voters have seen it all before. After all, it is the same set of faces that keep resurfacing every election. Since February 1997 when Parkash Singh Badal became chief minister of the state at the head of a Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government, he and the Congress’s Captain Amarinder Singh, the current chief minister, have swapped roles every five years.

Locals give the Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJP)-SAD combine little chance of success this time. Just two years into Captain’s rule, there isn’t a pronounced anti-incumbency factor, though it isn’t as if he’s brought any great solutions to the crisis-ridden state of 27.7 million people. So far, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah have stayed away from campaigning, though they could make a last-minute appearance.

The irony is that Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was the biggest gainer in 2014 winning four seats, isn’t in the reckoning this time. Riven with internal dissension as well as open revolt, it has been fragmenting at an alarming rate. Last year, seven of its members of legislative assembly led by Sukhpal Singh Khaira formed a rival party, the Punjab Ekta Party, which is contesting the elections as part of a four-party alliance. The party’s best hope is for Bhagwant Mann, the sitting Lok Sabha member in Sangrur.

In Amritsar, the Congress Bhawan near Rialto Chowk bears a deserted look. All the action is in the Hall Bazar office where Gurjeet Singh Aujla, the city’s sitting member of Parliament, and the man widely tipped to retain his seat, is campaigning from. His opponent is the BJP’s Hardeep Puri, Union minister for housing and urban affairs. The former diplomat, who is camping in the city addressing several rallies every day, is considered a lightweight but he isn’t giving up in a hurry.

Quiz him on specifics of a revival plan for the state and he points to the availability of land, water and the spirit of the people. That may not be enough considering that Punjab’s average agriculture gross domestic product (GDP) )growth between 2007 and 2015 was a limp 1.3% as compared to 10.9% for Madhya Pradesh which has now replaced the former as India’s food bowl, according to IndiaSpend. Says Kumar: “The economy has stagnated since the green revolution. Whatever little growth there is happened by default."

The fall of a mighty state

The pity is almost 98% of farmland in Punjab is now served by irrigation, and its farmers almost without fail use high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. But these gains have come at a high cost. Chemical fertilizer use per acre is up sixfold over the last five decades and returns are meagre. A study in 2015-16 by Punjab University said 86% of the farmers in the state face various levels of indebtedness, with a third living below the poverty line. Little wonder that Ashok Sethi, director, Punjab Rice Millers and Exporters Association, calls Punjab “a case study of an ongoing economic and social disaster".

A Brookings blog post pointed out, “By the mid-1980s, Punjab’s per capita output was the highest in the land. Since then, India’s economic growth picked up, and Punjab started to slip. By 2012, six states—Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu—had overtaken Punjab. To understand the reasons for this, it helps to start by looking at investment-to-GDP ratios in Punjab and in the rest of India. In 1980, at about 15%, this ratio was about the same. By 2010, it was 38% in India but still 15% in Punjab." Clearly, investors have increasingly shunned the state.

Following the rise of terrorism in the 1980s, the state steadily lost its economic leadership and post 1990, when liberalization gave wings to the entrepreneurial aspirations of Indians in many of the other states, Punjab lost its mojo.

One unfortunate fallout of those years of violence is the ambivalence regarding the capital city of the state. Chandigarh, where the state government is based, is a Union territory. Mohali, which was expected to become the new capital of Punjab, hasn’t quite taken off. At a time when most state capitals contribute anything between 7% and 20% of their revenues, Punjab doesn’t have an equivalent city.

As of January this year, the state faced a revenue gap of 37% following the roll out of the new goods and services tax. The state’s level of indebtedness is another worry. A Care Ratings report says Punjab is among the most indebted states of the country, with 26.7% of its revenue receipts going towards interest payments, which constrains its ability to spend on development.

That this state, once considered on a par with the Asian Tigers in terms of its growth potential should be reduced to such a state of affairs, is a tale of terrible governance and a missing vision. The decades lost to terrorism also stymied efforts to transition from a primarily agricultural economy to an industrial one while the wars with Pakistan and the continuous cross-border tensions ensured no major industry ever came up in the state.

The go-go years of the 1960s and 1970s when the state was the small and medium enterprises powerhouse of the country in sectors like bicycles, hosiery and sports goods are long gone, with growth petering out even as competitive products from China swamped the market.

Over the years as the salutary effects of the green revolution started ebbing, there was a need for a modified farm policy that would address the changing landscape of agriculture. But farmers have been left to their own devices. Thus, last year when the European Union (EU) imposed an indirect ban on basmati rice exports from India on account of the high level of fungicide used in its production, the 20,000 crore industry was left to fend for itself. As Sethi says, “Delhi isn’t interested in basmati." While the local basmati growers’ association held workshops for farmers, even inviting the EU delegates, there has been no central push to deal with the issue.

Some 10,000 trucks of rice meant for export to Pakistan have to drive to Ludhiana every month from where they go to Kandla and Jamnagar ports in Gujarat, as Punjab does not have the facility to ship exports out directly. A proposal to build an inland container port under the public private partnership in collaboration with Container Corp. of India has been gathering dust.

Price of failure

The consequences of this political lethargy have been disastrous. Unemployment has soared, and with it addiction to drugs among the young. The heroin trade continues unabated and most locals have no doubt who’s behind it. Puri is candid enough to say, “We have lost a generation to drugs. My heart goes out to the young people of Punjab. We must have gone wrong somewhere." Thousands of young people migrate abroad every year and Punjab also has the unwanted distinction of the largest number of young women, 30,000 of them, abandoned immediately after their marriage by their non-resident Indian husbands. Often they are pushed into these marriages by desperate parents reeling under debt.

In the villages of Punjab, there is an air of despondency. A survey conducted jointly by Punjab Agricultural University, Punjabi University and Guru Nanak Dev University, says nearly 16,600 farmers and agricultural labourers have committed suicide since 2000.

With less than a week to go for the elections, the BJP is more or less invisible, leaving the heavy lifting to its ally, the SAD. The Congress, meanwhile, is running its most successful campaign in any Indian state. It is telling that this is led by Amarinder Singh who had defeated Arun Jaitley by a margin of more than one lakh votes in the BJP sweep of 2014.

Whatever be the final verdict, Punjab’s problems will not go away. IDC’s Kumar says, “Punjab needs a paradigm shift in thinking and planning."

That may be coming from women like Arushi Verma, president of the Amritsar chapter of FICCI Flo, who is championing several initiatives related to the environment and women’s empowerment including finding them tangible earning opportunities. Her expectations from whichever government comes to power are merely “simpler compliances and responsible politics".

In patriarchal Punjab, women like Verma may well show the way.

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