In one of the Twitter spaces recently, the author was asked how many years had the state of Punjab been pushed back because of the repeal of the three progressive farm laws.
The question was not without its merit for many in the political and economic circles continue to believe that the laws will make a come back, packaged differently, focussed on addressing the concerns of the protesting farmers and addressing the inevitable ecological disaster in the state in the making for decades now. Yet, there is no possible quantification of the years lost, of the cost incurred, of the opportunities missed.
To quantify the lost years for Punjab’s agricultural economy, employing every fourth person in the state, formally, would be to assume that there is a universe where the state can undo the damage of the last two years, reverse the ecological damage to the groundwater levels and soil nutrition from the last six decades, and dilute its dependency on the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime that currently supports 80 per cent of the cultivated area in the state, devoted to merely two crops- paddy and wheat.
Truth be told, there is no catching up here, and there is no turning back the clock.
Politically, economically, and socially, the state of Punjab is at a tipping point, staring at the possibility of separatist sentiments, backed by some elements within the diaspora, surfacing again, after three decades of shared prosperity.
There is the unchecked and unprecedented economic and brain drain to the better pastures in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, a permanent drought-like situation with exhausted groundwater blocks, exploited social faultlines between the Hindus and Sikhs, and a general apprehension of the private sector as they continue to desert the state for the faster-growing cities of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
In Punjab, the discussion around the economy begins with agriculture, and this is where, today, the majority of the problems lie.
Within the state, the groundwater extraction for irrigation alone exceeds 90 per cent, more than any other state in India. Barring Rajasthan, the most over-exploited blocks in terms of groundwater are located in Punjab. Of the 138 assessed blocks in Punjab, stated in the Dynamic Groundwater Resources Assessment of India – 2017 report, 109 are over-exploited, two as critical, five as semi-critical, and only 22 as safe.
The total annual groundwater recharge of the state was assessed as 23.93 bcm (billion cubic metres), annual extractable groundwater resource was 21.59 bcm. Still, the annual groundwater extraction was at 35.78 bcm, putting the extraction at 166 per cent, the highest for any state in India. Even for Rajasthan, it’s less than 140 per cent.
Thanks to free power and water in the state, the crop-wise yield (in kgs/hectare) for rice went from 1,009 in 1960-61 to 3,229 in 1990-91 to 4,132 in 2018-19. For the same years, wheat went from 1,244 to 3,715 to 5,188. Due to the fertile region, a thriving irrigation network, the state’s crop-wise yields (kgs/hectare) are 4,733 against 2,661 for all India in cereals, are 905 against 841 for all India in pulses, and 1,467 against 1,270 for all India in oilseeds.
However, there is also concern pertaining to the inputs that make these high yields possible. In fertilizers, the ideal ratio for the use of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium is 4:2:1. In 2017-18, the ratio at all-India level was 6.1:2.4:1, but in the same year, for Punjab, it was 28:8.6:9.1. In 1990-91, it was 58.5:21.9:1. Hail subsidies.
Across the last 10 years, close to 30 per cent of the electricity generated in the state has gone to agriculture. At a national level, this share is closer to 20 per cent. The taxes generated from APMC mandis have been instrumental in sponsoring free power.
While the data does quantify the seriousness of the threat, it does nothing to explain the consequences, imminent, if such agricultural practices are allowed to go on, unchecked. Today, the main contesting parties in the four-way contest, at the expense of the state’s ecological future and for their their political selfishness, only wish to further the MSP regime. Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal wants to go a step ahead and all more free toppings in this gigantic pizza of freebies, even when the state has a debit in excess of Rs. 2.5 Lakh Crore.
When agriculture suffers, the industry suffers. Today, both Haryana and Uttar Pradesh register GST revenues that are four to five times that of Punjab. One can attribute this contrast to the thriving economic hubs of Gurugram and Noida, however, there is more to the economy than mere services. Punjab, with its expertise and experience in agriculture, and with the ideal geographical location could have emerged as an export hub for several commodities, from fruits and vegetables, and from pulses to cereals. Jammu, Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh are already onto it.
Today, that economic vision is largely missing, even amongst the brightest of the leaders. What prevails is an absurd, unexplainable resentment for the private sector. Desires for a Canadian PR, more industry, and employment growth do dominate the political rhetoric but there is no matching intent. There are rare conversations about groundwater levels but no one wants to move to better technologies in cultivation, or private sector assistance for farm equipment to tackle the menace of stubble burning, an annual choking festival for the citizens of areas in and north of the national capital.
If one takes a look at the value chain, from farm inputs to selling, the private sector can play a key role in creating a digital marketplace for farm inputs, helping farmers with research on plant/animal life sciences and genomics, farm equipment for rent on a pay-per-use basis, for farm management by helping them with geospatial data, IoT devices, and sensors, robotics, in farm mechanization, in modern farming techniques like indoor farming, greenhouse systems, drip irrigation, and in post-harvest produce handling through quality check and storage and transportation. All this directly translates into more industry, services, and most importantly, employment growth.
The choice, however, is to literally burn the fields every year, choking the environment, and to metaphorically burn every possible solution to it, thus choking the economy.
The services sector has not taken off either. Take the example of Mohali, bordering Chandigarh. The stretch from the newly built international airport in Mohali to Kharar was modeled on the lines of Gurugram’s MG Road. Almost a decade later, the number of malls, hotels, commercial establishments, and most importantly, the anticipated IT companies, is severely disappointing. The land prices have picked up, but the economic activity has not. However, in the neighbouring city of Panchkula, in Haryana, is where many companies have chosen to relocate.
In this election season, did any leader offer an economic vision for the state? Did any leader make an effort to communicate with the farmers about the private sector necessity, or the need to diversify from wheat and paddy, or to inculcate technology and modernity in their agriculture practices?
No, instead social battle lines were drawn that threaten to engulf the state in the communal clouds, last seen in the 1980s. For the Congress, it was about demeaning the labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that cared for the lands while the landlords camped leisurely at Singhu, Ghazipur, and Tikri borders. For the AAP, the other big contender, addressing the allegations of them being cozy with some separatist elements was not a priority, indicating they had learned no lessons from 2017 when Kejriwal’s stay in the house of the former chief of Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF) force in Moga resulted in a political uproar.
There are other prevailing factors that threaten the social fabric of the state. Unchecked conversion is rampant, especially in the Gurdaspur belt, and the murmurs about Channi, Congress’ CM face, being a convert himself, do not help the cause. Today, the population of converted Christians, who still continue with their Sikh names for several welfare benefits, is estimated to be in excess of 10 per cent, and yet, no party wants to talk about it. Drug menace, breeding within the unemployed youth, is more of a political attribution issue than one of health or economy.
The average voter can live with a stagnant economy, but in Punjab, today, many voters, especially the Hindu voters that make up for 40 to 45 per cent of the state’s population, would be feeling jittery, given the word ‘Khalistan’ has yet again surfaced in the political narrative. The horrors of the 1980s and early 1990s are not forgotten, and while Kejriwal may want to laugh off the allegations as a self-procliamed ‘sweet terrorist’, the fear in the mind of the voters will supersede the willingness to give Kejriwal a shot. The recent sacrilege cases within the state will also add to this political stress.
The election in Punjab will throw up new voting dynamics. While at stake is the political future of Sukhbir Singh Badal, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Bhagwant Mann, and Captain Amarinder Singh, the bigger worry is where the state is heading towards, both socially and economically. Punjabis yearn for change, yes, but what if in this gamble of change, they lose whatever little is remaining of the state’s prospects.
At a tipping point, one fears, Punjab is closer to irreversible political and economic doom than to a prosperous resurgence.
Hope we are proven wrong on March 10.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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