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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 32, New Delhi, July 25, 2020

Punjab’s Yearning For A Different Path of Development | Bharat Dogra and Jagmohan Singh

Friday 24 July 2020, by Bharat Dogra, Jagmohan Singh


In recent years there has been a very welcome and encouraging trend of looking beyond conventional indicators like GDP per capita and evaluating progress more on basis of genuine short-term and long-term welfare. In this wider and much better evaluation questions relating to non-fulfillment of basic needs of a significant section of people, damage done to health and environment and difficulties in spread of human values conducive to justice , equality, simplicity, sharing, peace and welfare of all are likely to get more attention. Such an evaluation is particularly useful in the context of Punjab as this state is often also held out as a model for other states of India, particularly in the context of agriculture.

Punjab is generally linked with all the outer signs of prosperity such as high visibility of modern consumer goods. In addition, Punjab has regularly occupied one of the highest slots in the HDI prepared for various states of India. Yet, there are glaring indicators of very high and increasing levels of distress such as very high rates of indebtedness and even suicides among farmers, very high rates of substance abuse and addiction, alarmingly rising high rates of water contamination and decline of water table, ecological devastation, high rates of malnutrition and fast spread of serious diseases like cancer. An overview of multidimensional distress and its causes provides strong evidence of not only increasing distress in the recent past but also indications of several worsening problems, such as those relating to serious decline in soil quality. The need for urgent remedial steps is now widely recognized but most of the solutions suggested are of sporadic and piecemeal nature while the urgent need for more systemic changes with a longer term perspective has been generally neglected.

Despite its higher income and even ‘human development’ ratings among the various states of India, Punjab has suffered in recent times from very high levels of multidimensional distress. The famous land of five rivers appears now to be flooded by the polluted waters of five streams of distress - a serious farming crisis culminating in suicides of farmers and farm workers, an overwhelming crisis of ecological disruption including serious threats to water and soil, proliferation of serious health hazards and toxicity, alarming social disintegration including extremely high levels of substance abuse and finally, huge loss of biodiversity and threats to other forms of life.

Women, small farmers and dalits have to bear the most burden of this multi-dimensional distress. They are exposed to multiple vulnerabilities. Imagine communities facing simultaneously serious livelihood problems, lack of social security, increasing health hazards and addictions, suicides, domestic violence, crimes, high expenses of private health care, the compulsion of meeting high social expenditures and you get a sense of the many-sided distress that many communities and families are experiencing badly in Punjab.

The livelihood crisis faced by farmers, the increasing burden of high socially compulsive expenditures like dowries, various destructive addictions and intoxications, various aspects of social disintegration, an overwhelming sense of confusion, alienation and lack of direction- all these may appear like different aspects of the existing reality of Punjab, and yet these are also closely interrelated. Their origin can be traced partly to well-entrenched economic and social ( including gender) inequalities and partly to a distorted system of governance which despite all the outer appearances of a well-organized multi-party democracy supported by institutions of decentralization, doesn’t really respond to the real needs and aspirations of people in contexts of changes which go beyond a certain framework, a rather narrow framework. Instead of having in place a bottom to top system which reflects real needs and aspirations of people so that higher level policy making can be in conformity with it, there is a very disturbing tendency of imposing policies from the top which may be largely or completely alienated from the real needs of people and which leave out the basic task of reducing inequalities.

The so-called green-revolution was a clear example of imposing policies and systems that were not in keeping with the needs of farmers and farm workers of Punjab, nor were these in keeping with the sustainable use of soil and water. Having imposed unsuitable and harmful farm policies and systems, there is later a lot of chest-beating about the harmful ‘side-effects’ on soil, water, health, biodiversity, ecology sustainability etc. If all the crucial aspects suffer from adverse ‘side-effects’, then what is the justification of the so-called green revolution?

If today there is over-mechanization, excessive and unbalanced use of agrichemicals and serious hazards to health and soil emerging from this as well as extremely high costs of farming, why should we not question the distorted policies which really contributed to this? Instead of correcting existing distortions, isn’t the situation being worsened by the likely drift towards contract-farming and corporate-driven farming?

Moving beyond farming, we may also ask who really accentuated the drift towards the rapid proliferation of liquor vends in remote villages? Who tried to earn the most from this? Isn’t it true that powerful, well-connected vested interests have been behind the increasing availability of various drugs and intoxicants in recent years?

All these questions should be faced clearly and frankly if past mistakes are to be corrected. Only then an alternative paradigm based on the real needs and aspirations of people can emerge.

Such an alternative paradigm necessarily has to be based on the non-negotiable principles of equality, justice, environment protection, sustainable agriculture, social harmony, peace and concerns for all forms of life.

Policy changes need to have the wider support of mobilization of people on issues of equality, justice, peace and environment protection. Efforts should be made to strengthen communities on these issues, also taking up priority tasks of health, education, social security and livelihood protection, so that people are increasingly united on issues of common interest and welfare of all. In the culture of Punjab with widespread reverence and respect for Guru Nanak, Guru Govind Singh, Sant Ravidas as well as martyrs of more recent history such as Shahid Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Kartar Singh Sarabha, certainly there should be a lot of potential for awakening the present-day dormant feelings of people for equality, justice, peace and environment protection.

Reducing economic and social inequalities to a significant extent has to be an essential component of any efforts to re-structure Punjab’s development on the basis of justice and equal opportunities.

More specifically, in agriculture there is a need for ecologically protective, organic, low-cost and more self-reliant technology which makes the best possible use of local resources. There is a need for cropping-patterns which are in keeping with the health and sustenance of soil and water resources as well as the nutrition and health needs of people. Hazardous technologies particularly those relating to GM crops must be firmly rejected. There is equal and clear need for changing patterns of industrial development, so that more employment is generated in labour-intensive, non-hazardous industries located in rural areas. More daily needs should be met in this way.

Infact growing nutritious food in organic and ecologically protective ways should be promoted as a movement in which not just farmers but also students and urban households can also become enthusiastic participants. This movement can spread not only to agricultural fields but also to small gardens.

There is a need for much higher government expenditure and support for health and education, so that government schools and health centres/hospitals can be improved and expanded very significantly and the drift towards privatization of education and health can be checked.

There is genuine need for decentralization with a strong role for women and weaker sections so that rural and urban communities feel empowered for effective action in high priority areas, including strong action against alcoholism and drug-addiction as well as all the related vested interests. Similarly, strong community action to curb wasteful dowry and marriage expenses as well as other wasteful expenses is needed. Government’s own reform efforts should try to get better involvement of people and communities (for example, the efforts made in Nawashahar to check female foeticide some time back and more recent efforts to revive rural ponds).

There is certainly a great need for resisting many aspects of gender injustice, ensuring many-sided welfare of women and at the same time increasing possibilities of their wider role in justice based social change and fighting various social evils. There is clearly also a strong need for a justice-based approach to the rights of dalits and other weaker sections for their equal place in society at various levels. Their aspiration for at least some land rights is rooted in justice and should be respected. There should be a widespread movement which can check and change the discriminatory and oppressive attitudes towards all weaker sections. Special care should be taken to ensure that while taking up issues concerning the welfare of weaker sections concerns of migrant workers are not neglected as they constitute a significant section of the vulnerable people in Punjab.

Organizations of farmers, farm workers, other workers, women and social and environmental movements should be strengthened and should be mutually supportive. Wider unity of people at all levels for common welfare and justice actions should be emphasized. More avenues and democratic spaces for social change and reform movements should be explored and pursued with continuity.

Overall there is clear need for replacing entirely profit and greed driven priorities of society and its leadership with priorities based on removing distress and causes of distress. Real need and not greed should be the basis of deciding development priorities. Clearly wide-ranging systemic changes are needed, and we can make a good beginning by prioritizing some of the more essential tasks which cannot be postponed any longer. At a time when violence at various levels- crime, domestic violence, self-harm, violence towards nature and other forms of life- is clearly a leading cause of distress, there is also a need to go back to the more noble aspects of Punjabiyat and emphasize their protective role. Communal violence, sectarian violence, caste violence, gender violence and separatist violence—all these forms of violence should be firmly rejected . The need of the hour as well as the longer-term agenda is an agenda of justice, equality, peace based on justice and equality, environment protection and welfare of all-including not just human beings but all forms of life.

Several persons of Punjab origin have gained prosperity out of Punjab and are keen to contribute to their original home, its villages and cities. They should carefully contribute to this agenda of peace, justice, equality and environment protection.


Bharat Dogra, journalist and author, is Convener, Save the Earth NOW Campaign. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Man Over Machine.

Prof. Jagmohan Singh is Chairperson, Shahid Bhagat Singh Research Committee.

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