From the breadbasket of India, Punjab has become a basket-case economy. Endowed with ample water and good soil, Punjab’s happy, progressive people had a dream that is now a distant memory. Punjab’s decline started with its trifurcation. In its bid to establish a separate identity, the poli-tical establishment obsessed over a religious-political agenda and steered the state towards the dark days of terrorism. Haryana, once considered the backwater of joint Punjab, focused on an economic agenda. Today, it’s far ahead of Punjab in terms of per capita income.
The Centre’s policies aimed at increasing food production to ensure an adequate supply of grain, coupled with export restrictions, have taken a toll. The expected progression of Punjab from agricultural economy to industrial powerhouse to service-sector leader never took place. Food processing, essential for agricultural prosperity, never bloomed — for instance, Punjab exports wheat but imports wheat flour. Till such time as off-farm jobs aren’t created, discontent is going to rise. Over the last decade, Punjab has had a more-than-fair share in the Union cabinet. But this hasn’t contributed to the state’s progress.
It’s not right to blame the Green Revolution for the whole mess — there’s more to it than that. Starved of state government funds, the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) has witnessed decreasing faculty strength and new research has completely ceased in the last decade. The state government imposes high taxes on the purchase of foodgrain by the Food Corporation of India. If just 5 per cent of this were provided to the PAU, it would help its revival. But political expediency takes precedence over vision and foresight to disincentivise the monoculture of wheat and rice.
Punjab is suffocating from its estimated 6,00,000-plus tractors. Tractor-ownership is viable only if they are operated for over 900 hours per year. In contrast, average farm-use in Punjab is possibly half this figure. As a result, once a farmer buys a tractor, he works for the bank for life to repay the loan and interest. Alternatively, three-year interest-free loans to service-hiring entities so that they can buy better farm machinery would allow farmers to access mechanisation without taking on any financial burden. This could raise crop yields by 20 per cent.
Over exploitation of groundwater because of the free power provided to farmers has resulted in the water table falling to dangerously low levels. The cost of drawing water from greater depths is causing more indebtedness among farmers. Augmenting the inadequate free power with diesel engines works out to be more expensive. If the leadership showed political will, farmers would happily pay Re 1 per unit for good quality and consistent supply.
Urea is sold at one-fourth the price of table salt today. But the excessive use of cheap urea destroys the soil and leads to more plant vegetative growth. An explosion of insect and pest populations is then inevitable. Indiscriminate, unregulated sale of pesticides and spurious products is leading to an ecological disaster. To prevent this, a 10-per cent annual reduction in pesticide-use is important.
Increasing urea price and simultaneously subsidising DAP could be a quick interim measure towards more balanced fertiliser usage. But the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and powerful agro-industrial conglomerates has resulted in Punjab witnessing a new trend of young farmers committing suicide. At the time of the infamous farm loan waiver, Punjab used to contribute nearly half of the grains to the Central pool, but received less than 2 per cent of waiver funds. Not because farmers were not defaulting on debt but because of the way banks were window dressing accounts. Political interference in cooperative banks and societies has destroyed the movement. Strangely, Punjab farmers are now burdened with the cost of fencing their lands to save their crops from innumerable stray and unproductive domesticated cattle that have been let loose across villages.
The simmering discontent over seed and pesticide scams, the decimation of the cotton crop, and low crop prices had farmers blockading rail and road traffic. Frustration with the manipulation of religious institutions, flip-flops over pardons, and the desecration of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib inflamed passions and matters of faith took precedence over matters of livelihood. This is how politics alternates and repeats itself in Punjab.