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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 30 New Delhi July 18, 2015

Punjab: Paradox of Outward Prosperity and Deepening Problems

Monday 20 July 2015

by Bharat Dogra, Jagmohan Singh and Reena Mehta

There has been a growing awareness in recent years that rise in the GDP need not necessarily be associated with increasing real welfare. This realisation led to efforts to prepare other indi-cators of welfare such as the Human Develop-ment Index (HDI) incorporating health, education and other important features in addition to income. However, even such improvements may not be adequate as multidimensional distress conditions may deteriorate even in a situation of not just increasing income but even improving HDI.

In this context the experience of the State of Punjab is particularly striking as all over India 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 the 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 the water table, ecological devastation, high rates of malnutrition and the 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 recognised 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.

The India Human Development Report (2011) tells us that the HDI for Punjab for 2007-08 is 0.605 compared to the all India HDI of 0.467. In terms of Income Index, Punjab, with 0.495, is even more ahead of the all India figure of 0.271. The Education Index for Punjab, computed at 0.654, is again ahead of the all India index of 0.568. The Health Index of Punjab for 2008, calculated at 0.667, is much ahead of the all India index of 0.563. Despite all these, there is, however, evidence of many serious and worsening problems.

Crisis of Agro-Ecology

Before the advent of the Green Revolution, Punjab grew a wide diversity of crops and crop-varieties using time-respected crop rota-tions and mixed farming systems. These were able to exist in compatibility with local soil, water and climate conditions so that even after hundreds of years of cultivation there was no heavy stress on soil and water. However, the Green Revolution technology started creating stress on soil and water within just one or two decades. Loss of biodiversity and the narrow genetic base of crops, brought about by the Green Revolution technology, led to greater vulnerability to heavy damage from diseases and pests, in turn requiring heavy use of hazardous chemical pesticides and other agri-chemicals.

High dependence on heavy and unbalanced use of chemical fertilisers depletes the fertility of land. Chemical fertilisers cannot enhance the soil’s organic matter which is the key to fertility. Heavy reliance on chemical fertilisers ultimately leads to a situation where more and more of these have to be used just to maintain the existing yields at rising costs.

What is more, chemical fertilisers are much less suitable for the tropical climate and soil compared to temperate areas. Here their contribution to pollution as well as long-term damage to soil fertility is much more. The contribution of earthworms in maintaining soil fertility is also much higher in our country and the agri-chemicals have been very harmful to them. Chemical sprays also destroy some other friendly insects. The deeper root growth, important for preventing any deficiency of micronutrients, has also been hampered due to the formation of pan by chemical fertilisers.

So it is not surprising that farmers in Punjab soon experienced rising costs and stagnant yields. The farmers’ costs also increased further due to over-investment in mechanisation. At present there are 477,000 tractors, 624,000 thrashers and about 13,000 harvesting combines in Punjab. As per information provided by the Punjab State Farmers Commission, the State has double the number of tractors it requires. At the same time the farmers’ returns were further eroded by exploitative practices in the marketing of farm produce.

The increasing cost and debts of farmers have unfortunately also led to thousands of suicides. A census survey on suicides, conducted in the most affected six districts, namely, Bhatinda, Sangrur, Mansa, Barnala, Moga and Ludhiana, revealed that 3507 farmers committed suicide in these districts during the period 2000-11. Out of these suicides, 74 per cent were committed due to economic distress and indebtedness. Eighty per cent of these suicides were by small farmers cultivating less than five acres of land. The average debt in such cases was Rs 2,34,541.

The extreme distress of marginal and small farmers has been accompanied by the no-less-traumatic distress of landless farm workers. The two categories are by no means mutually exclusive as many marginal farmers also toil as farm workers. In addition, several small and marginal farmers have been forced by indeb-tedness and economic distress to leave their land and turn into farm workers. This can be a traumatic experience for them as family honour is very closely linked to land ownership. Studies have revealed that 14.4 per cent of Punjab’s farmers have left farming since 1991.

The working of the prevailing power structure, both at the village level and at the wider policy level, is such that the aspirations of farm workers either for better wages or for a share of the land are generally curbed with a heavy hand.

Related to the distress of farmers is the fast deteriorating agro-ecology of Punjab due to which future prospects of sustainable develop-ment in agriculture are badly threatened.

Data analysis by the Punjab Agriculture University reveal that within a very short period 1981-86 to 1996-2001 the number of soil samples in low Phosphorous (P) increased from 45 per cent to 71 per cent. The exploitive Green Revolution technology has rapidly depleted several precious micronutrients. A survey conducted in 1990 by the PAU revealed that 49 per cent of soils in Punjab were deficient in Zinc. Burning of wheat and rice straw has also contributed to the loss of soil fertility apart from causing air pollution.

Apart from depletion of ground water, there are also reports of pollution of ground water as well as surface water sources. Heavy use of agri-chemicals has led to ground water being contaminated by these. In addition, ground water contamination is caused by industrial chemicals and effluents. Surface water pollution is no less serious.

The last 50 years or so have witnessed perhaps the worst ever loss of biodiversity in the history of Punjab going back to thousands of years. Agricultural fields have been reduced to monocul-tures of a few crops with a very narrow genetic base while a huge variety of traditional seeds and crop varieties, incorporating the wisdom and efforts of several generations of farmers, have been displaced from fields and in the absence of any large scale efforts to preserve them this invaluable heritage may be lost forever. Precious traditional knowledge is no longer passed from one generation to another. Due to the spread of poisonous agri-chemicals, a ‘silent spring’ has dawned in Punjab in which the sweet chirping of birds is becoming more and more rare. Whether it is the friendly sparrow or highly useful pollinating birds and insects, a huge decline can be seen in Punjab. Aquatic life has suffered to an alarming extent in rivers and ponds. The oldest friends of farmers—bullocks—can hardly be seen now in villages. Indigenous breeds of most farm animals have suffered heavily. Much of this loss could have been avoided.

Social Distress

The loss of biodiversity is generally also reflected in a loss of nutrition. When a wide diversity of crops are grown in villages, then it is more likely that more balanced nutrition will be available to villages without incurring cash expenditures. On the other hand monocultures are likely to be associated with the loss of balanced nutrition, particularly for those small farmers with limited capacity to meet balanced nutrition needs using cash purchases.

The key indicators for Punjab from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) tell us that, according to NFHS-3, 28 per cent of the children are stunted, nine per cent are wasted and 27 per cent are under-weight while the infant mortality rate is 42. Between NFHS-2 and NFHS-3, the percentage of wasted children went up from seven to nine while the vaccination coverage decreased from 72 per cent to 60 per cent. According to NFHS-1 (1998-99), 80 per cent of children in the age-groups 6-35 months are anaemic while 41 per cent of women suffer from anaemia.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the health situation in Punjab in recent times has been the increase in the incidence of serious diseases, particularly cancer.

At the same time that serious health threats are emerging, the government is increasingly going back on its commitments to public health. The share of health and family welfare in the Punjab Budget declined from 6.15 per cent in 1998-99 to 3.62 per cent in 2010-11.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the recent social changes in Punjab relates to an unprecedented increase in various kinds of substance abuse, particularly drug addiction.

Several studies have expressed concern at the dismal state of rural education and unequal access to education in Punjab. While Punjab has consistently maintained its fifth rank in the HDI Index, in 2001 it could only occupy the 16th position in the ranking of 35 States and Union Territories regarding literacy rate. In year 2011 it was pushed further behind to the 19th position. The share of education in the Punjab Budget has reduced from 19.8 per cent in 1992-93 to 12.42 per cent in 2010-11. Most children from weaker sections go to government schools and here the quality of education has been very poor. Only 50 per cent of rural students in standard V could read the texts of standard II.

A widely quoted study, which covered all universities in the State, brought out a disturbing fact that the percentage of rural students among total students was only 4.07 in 2005-06 at a time when about 65 per cent of the people of Punjab live in rural areas. Even in the Punjab Agriculture University, the share of rural students was only 4.73 per cent. The share of rural SC students was only 0.6 per cent.

The strong gender bias in the Punjab society has been generally reflected in a very adverse sex ratio, a situation that became worse with the introduction of new technologies and the resulting escalation of cases of female foeticide till some remedial action by the government checked this highly disturbing trend to some extent. More recently there have been several shocking reports of increasing crimes against women.

The high and increasing expenditure on marriages of girls and dowries reflects the gender bias and also accentuates it.

Some of the recent developments in Punjab, like the huge increase in substance abuse and emergence of new health hazards and related diseases, have greatly aggravated the problems of many women. As can be easily understood, women from families of suicide victims and suicide-attempt victims have to face greatest difficulties. Many women have to increasingly bear a triple burden of economic stress, various addictions in family and gender bias in its old and new forms.

There are growing signs of Dalits being denied land rights to an even greater extent than before, and the resulting discontent. If such trends persist, social harmony will be very badly affected. Hundreds of people were killed in an earlier phase of indiscriminate violence and terrorism; so any threats to social harmony are a cause of great concern, particularly as several powerful interests at home and abroad are waiting to fish in troubled waters.

The situation becomes even more precarious due to the increasing criminalisation of the society, high rates of many serious crimes, the prevailing ‘gun culture’ and involvement of politically influential persons in crimes.

In fact, recent reports on increasing substance abuse have drawn attention to the involvement of prominent political leaders as well as officials, including police and para-military officials.

Basic Changes Needed

It is clear from the above analysis that 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, inclu-ding 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 most of the 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 several comm-unities 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, different aspects of social disintegration, an overwhelming sense of confusion, alienation and lack of direction—all these may appear like varied aspects of the existing reality of Punjab, and yet these are also closely interrelated. Their origin can be traced to a distorted system of governance which, despite all the outer appearances of a well-organised multi-party democracy supported by institutions of decentralisation, doesn’t really respond to the genuine needs and aspirations of people.

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

Reducing economic and social inequalities to a significant extent has to be an essential component of any efforts to restructure 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 the people.

There is a genuine need for decentralisation 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 comm-unity action to curb wasteful dowry and marriage expenses as well as other wasteful expenses is needed.

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. Special care should be taken to ensure that while taking up issues concerning the welfare of weaker sections, the concerns of migrant workers are not neglected as they constitute a significant section of the vulnerable people in Punjab.

Organisations of farmers, farm workers, other workers, women and social and environmental movements should be strengthened and be mutually supportive. Wider unity of the people at all levels for the common welfare and justice actions should be emphasised. More avenues and democratic spaces for social change and reform movements should be explored and pursued on a persistent basis.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with various social initiatives and movements. Prof Jagmohan Singh is the chairperson of the Shahid Bhagat Singh Research Committee. Reena Mehta is a freelance writer and researcher.