Punjab Crisis

The controversy over 'Udta Punjab' shows how the state government has completely lost the plot

For a reality check, just check out Scroll's 'Ear to the Ground' reportage.

Hope has finally arrived.

At a time when the Centre and the State governments in India are proving entirely unequal to the responsibilities placed before them, Punjab has decided to step up and show the way.

Late last week, the state government – run by the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – managed to fix the state’s much-discussed drug problem. Not by exposing the mafia which brings and sells drugs to its people but by cracking down on a Mumbai film about the state’s drugs problem. Acting on what appear to be instructions from the top, the Central Board of Film Certification, which runs a wildly successful employment guarantee programme for the country’s most regressive minds, told producers of Udta Punjab to remove any references to Punjab, its towns and cities, and elections to be in their film, in a list of 89 cuts.

In the process, the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – both of which look increasingly nervous as elections draw near – appear to have found an answer to the state’s drugs problem that Goebbels would have been proud of. If no one talks about drugs, they seem to think, maybe the people of Punjab will vote them back in.

As thoughts go, that is delusional. Punjab is already simmering with rage at its state government. We saw proof of this when cotton and paddy farmers blocked railtracks and roads after huge crop losses last Kharif. And we saw further proof of this anger when torn pages from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Saheb, surfaced in some villages. There was much anger against the state government for not preventing this desecration.

Badal family stranglehold

In October 2015, when Scroll began a three month reporting stint in the state, it quickly became apparent that this anger had been building for a long while. The reasons went far beyond drugs. In the last nine years, Punjab has seen a large process of political consolidation.

The Badal family – Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal – controls the ruling Akali Dal. There is no opposition to them within the party. As for their party, it has insinuated itself into the daily lives of the people to such an extent that even FIRs are not registered without a go-ahead from the local Akali Dal leaders.

This untrammelled power, as investigations by Chandigarh’s The Tribune and Scroll have shown, has mainly been used to bolster economic control – by the Badals and those close to them – over Punjab. They now control a clutch of businesses in the state including liquor distribution, stone crushing, sand mining, bus transport and cable distribution. Industrialists say Akali Dal leaders ask for a share in their profits.

It gets worse. As both TheTribune and the Scroll stories showed, these businesses evade taxes. And the brunt of that is felt by the poorest people in the state. Take healthcare. Punjab’s public health system doesn’t have a single surgeon – across the state – who can do a bypass surgery.

The state cannot, we were told, match private sector salaries. Which, in turn, is because the budget for the state health department is just Rs 3,000 crore.

To put that in perspective, liquor in Punjab is controlled by five people. Three of them are Akali Dal MLAs. Half the liquor sold in the state, as KR Lakhanpal, a former Chief Secretary of the state, told us, is illicit. Annual loss to the state exchequer? About Rs 5,000 crore.

Losing the plot

The fallout? Patients have to go to private hospitals, which tell poorer families to take the patient home if they cannot pay for the procedure.

Travel around in the state and it is this decay that you encounter repeatedly. Climate change is hammering agriculture in the state but adaptation and mitigation are non-existent. The state’s revenue collection mechanisms are collapsing, resulting in the state mopping up revenues mostly by sticking surcharges (like cow cesses) to its power bills. Industry, given dwindling competitiveness of the state due to factors like rising power costs, is starting to leave. But, as industrialists say, Akali Dal leaders continue demanding a share of their profits.

Which is further accelerating the deindustrialisation of the state.

Each of these trends – as we reported – is taking a large toll on the people of the state. Travel around in the state and you see people turning to new gurus – or falling back on identity politics – for comfort. Most of the young people this reporter spoke to were planning to leave the state.

That is the composite reality of this moment – political corruption, a few gaining at the cost of the many, drugs, unemployment, you name it.

A state government which responds to all these by suggesting changes to movie scripts has – in a manner of speaking – completely lost the plot.

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