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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

Dissecting the Agrarian Crisis in Punjab

Monday 27 July 2009, by Rajiv Kumar

BOOK REVIEW

Rural Development in Punjab: A Success Story Going Astray by Autar S. Dhesi and Gurmail Singh (eds.); Routledge, New Delhi; 2008.

There was a forecast of starvation in India during the 1960s due to food deficit. As a response to meet the food deficit the state launched the Green Revolution which was spearheaded by Punjab. Under the Green Revolution specialisation of wheat-paddy crops brought tremendous growth in food production. India not only became food-sufficient but also as a food exporting country. This tremendous growth in agricultural production not only guaranteed food security to India but also helped in the rural development of Punjab in the form of quality of life, rise in per capita income, pucca roads to villages, electricity, elimination of poverty etc. The government played an important role behind the success of the Green Revolution by ensuring institutional and technological support to the hard working farmer of Punjab. All this made Punjab a role model for the rest of India. Punjab was recognised as a “food-basket” for India.

Despite the success story of the Green Revolution, which brought phenomenal growth since the 1960s, Punjab has, however, been facing an acute crisis. Over the past decade the State has experienced deceleration of its economy and has slipped in the ranking of the prosperous States. Punjab, as of today, lags behind not only in terms of industrial growth but also in its agricultural sector that has been witness to stagnation. Even laggard States like Bihar have registered better growth rate than Punjab. The crisis in agriculture has manifested itself in the form of stagnating productivity, rising cost of production, shrinking income and employment, depleting land holding, mounting indebtness and ecological damage. This reversal of growth in agriculture has raised a serious question about the future sustainability of development in Punjab. There is thus a growing demand to explain the inherent weakness in the development strategy which has failed to keep Punjab on the track of further growth.

The edited volume under review enables us to understand and analyse the deep economic crisis in Punjab. The volume brings together 28 articles by eminent scholars who have not only shown their deep understanding of the crisis but have also put forward a number of policy suggestions to help prevent the success story of rural Punjab from going astray. The major thrust of the articles is on agriculture and allied sectors. The basic issues raised in the book are dominance and overdependence of wheat-paddy monoculture and alternative cropping patterns, water resources, agro-industrialisation, human resources develop-ment and the role of Punjabi diaspora in rural development.

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The crux of the problem, the volume suggests, is that externally-driven modernisation of agriculture to meet national food needs pushed Punjab into highly specialised production of wheat and rice, resulting in over-utilisation of natural resources with adverse environmental consequences jeopar-dising the long-term viability and sustainability of the agrarian economy. Stagnating productivity, rising cost of production, falling household incomes, depleting groundwater, intensive use of fertilisers—all this related to the overdependence on wheat-paddy crops. Reduction of domestic and overseas demand of these crops, lower quality of our production and declining international prices of these crops made them non-competitive in the global market. There was further margina-lisation due to liberalisation of the agriculture trade under the WTO regime. The authors in this book suggest diversification of crops as the possible viable option to pull Punjab out of the crisis. They propose diversification of crops to those which are less water intensive, high value and competitive in the global market. There is need for serious research and development efforts in agricultural products and also the availability of market infrastructure and remunerative minimum support prices as provided to wheat and paddy. Lack of agro-industrial development was also a cause of the crisis. There is at the same time a strong need for linkages among agro-industries as suggested in this book. This would not only diversify the crops but also provide rural employment which would check the rural-to-urban migration.

Another important issue highlighted in the book is the human resources development in rural Punjab. Despite its high per capita income, Punjab lags behind many States in human resources development. As argued in the book, rural develop-ment is a multidimensional and continuous process for change. Institutional support, economic infrastructure and technical change are important elements in this process. If these elements are ignored the situation may become alarming. The present crisis of Punjab is also the result of such ignorance.

The rapid transformation of Punjab’s agrarian economy is attributed mainly to institutional and technical changes steered by the state. However, due to neglect of rural health, education and infrastructure since the 1980s and specialised agriculture production, the full gain of agrarian transformation could not be realised. [30]

Declining share of the agricultural sector in the State’s economy also impacted on rural development. The condition of rural education, health, sanitation and civic amenities of life in Punjab is very poor. The budgetary percentage of expenditure on education and the health sector has declined particularly after the economic reforms. Lack of quality education in public institutions gives birth to the mushrooming growth of private educational institutions. But they become only the recruiting ground for the well-off sections of the urban areas. Similarly the poor condition of health services forces the rural poor to get treated in private hospitals. The conditions of village sanitation and drinking water are also very bad in rural Punjab and this is the cause of 80 per cent disease in the villages. All this has resulted in widening the rural-urban gap to access these civic amenities of life. The suggestions given in this book relate to investment in physical and human capital—education, health etc. This would build the capacity of the rural poor and small farmer and generate skills among them to get themselves absorbed in the modern sector. Education generates off-farm employment and this would reduce the pressure on land and thereby improve the condition of the agricultural sector. The book also recognises the role of various government employment generation schemes as well as the Punjabi diaspora in rural development.

There is need for a well-thought-out strategy for the next step of agrarian transformation from agrarian economy to an industrial one. For this purpose institutional change and investment in physical and human capital, particularly in education and health, is a must. Public-private cooperation in research and development and investment should be ensured. Even the Green Revolution needs to undergo a transition towards a second Green Revolution based on diversification of agriculture and organic farming. Paddy farming needs to be done away with as the water table is going down and the nutrient content in the soil has deteriorated.

The volume is a good contribution for those who are keen to understand the deep-rooted agrarian crisis that afflicts the economy of the once model State of India. There are, however, some major issues that have not got adequate attention. Farmers’ suicides, which go on unabated in the cotton belt of Malwa, do not receive academic treatment in detail. In order to understand the crisis in depth there is a need to explain the causes and consequences of the farmers’ suicides. Similarly, the state of rural labour, including the women workers and migrant labour, who never became beneficiaries of the Green Revolution and are now the worst victims, should have been discussed. The government’s populist policies like free water and electricity also aggregate the crisis which has not been looked at in this book. There is a dissonance between electoral politics and the substantive economic issues as the campaign remains obsessed with the Panthic/identity matters and the real economic questions are hardly debated. The changing socio-cultural conditions like growing consumer culture, overspending on marriages, drug culture, the new generation’s lack of interest in agriculture have also accentuated the crisis.

The volume is a significant contribution to the issue under discussion. The essays, originally written for the volume by the Punjab researchers, enable us to understand that the Green Revolution strategy was at best a technological solution to the food crisis and not a political solution. The energy sapping, technology-based strategy was bound to be doomed right from the beginning. The failure of governance has deepened the crisis.

The author is a UGC Junior Research Fellow, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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