Ear to the ground

What we talk about when we talk about Punjab

A snapshot of the state based on our 'Ear to the Ground' reportage between October and January.

Between October and January, Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground project reported from Punjab.

The idea, as in Mizoram and Odisha, was to create a snapshot of the state. How are its people doing? What are the largest processes shaping the state?

When Scroll.in moved to Punjab, it was late October. The state was simmering. Farmers were angry and upset. The cotton crop had been hammered by a whitefly attack. The other kharif mainstay – basmati – was fetching lower rates than the grains sold to the Food Corporation of India. Over preceding weeks, torn pages from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Saheb, had surfaced in some villages. There was much anger against the state government for not preventing this desecration. Protesters had blocked roads and railway tracks. In response, the state police had opened fired, killing some protesters.

Travelling around, however, it soon became evident that this anger against the government has been building for a while.

A large part of the reason can be traced back to the Badals’ tightening grip over the state.

Political grip

In the last nine years, Punjab has seen two large processes of consolidation.

The first is political consolidation. The Badal family now controls the Akali Dal more strongly can ever before. And it has retained most government decision-making with itself.

In turn, the Akali Dal has insinuated itselves into the daily lives of people more completely than ever before. Nothing illustrates that as well as the notion of the halka in-charge – halka is the Punjabi word for assembly constituency.

In the 2012 assembly elections, the Shiromani Akali Dal won 56 constituencies in the 117-member assembly. Candidates who lost were made the halka in-charge of their constituencies. Next, as Master Mohan Lal, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader and a former transport minister in the Akali government, says: “The state government directed the police and the administration to follow the halka.

In one stroke, the Akali influence extended to every constituency in the state, irrespective of whether the party had won it or not.

Ask people in the state about the halka and one refrain comes through repeatedly. To get anything done, people have to go to the halka. Even for a domestic matter like divorce, the police won’t file a case without a letter from the halka.

A part of this hegemony is maintained through force. In a paper published in the December 26, 2015, issue of Economic & Political Weekly under the title “Rural Elites and the Limits of Scheduled Caste Assertiveness in Rural Malwa, Punjab”, Nicolas Martin writes: “My research on panchayats indicates that ruling SAD politicians use harassment and intimidation when they seek to secure their party’s stranglehold over particular panchayats, or when they are determined to give power to a particular village leader.”

This violence is not always physical. The Akali government, says Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, a Ludhiana-based lawyer, has charged as many as 100-150 people under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act: “If you charge someone with sedition, they will get bail in one or two months.” In contrast, those charged under UAPA do not get bail.

Economic grip

As their grip over the state tightened, what use did the Badals put it to?

Well, in the last nine years, Punjab has seen an extraordinary blurring of lines between politics and business.

People close to the Badals or the Akali Dal now control a clutch of businesses in the state. These include liquor distribution, stone crushing, sand mining, bus transport and cable distribution. Industrialists say Akali Dal leaders ask for a share in their profits.

This economic consolidation has been bad for Punjab. Take just two instances. According to a former chief secretary of the state, KR Lakhanpal, half of all liquor sold in Punjab now is illicit. That works out to about Rs 5,000 crore annually. Stone crushing in the state, others complain, is almost entirely illegal. A petition challenging stone crushing in the state estimates the business’ annual profits at Rs 10,000 crore.

To put both these numbers into perspective, Punjab spends about Rs 3,000 crore on healthcare every year.

It is a wholly insufficient amount. Salaries paid by the state government are so low that Punjab is not able to fill critical posts in hospitals, including super specialties like trauma, neurosurgery and cardiology. This lack extends to more routine positions as well. The state doesn’t have enough medical specialists, gynaecologists, paediatricians, eye surgeons, ENTs or radiologists either.

The reason for low salaries is underfunding. And the reason for low underfunding is low government revenues.

Visit government schools and you see a similar shortage of teachers. One school this reporter visited, teachers were so busy running remedial courses for students slipping behind their peers that they had no time to conduct regular classes.

The outcome? The rest of the kids were playing during school hours.

If the government system cannot provide good healthcare or education, people will have to go to the private sector. But that is expensive. And so, you have poor people borrowing every time someone falls ills.

In the case of more unaffordable procedures, people are turned away from hospitals. Take Mohan Lal Shonky of Nurmahal town. He said: “Private waley kehte hain ghar le ja kar sewa karo.” Private hospitals tell us to tend to the patient at home if we cannot pay their fee.

Put it all together and you see a political party growing at the cost of the state.

Other implications

Spend time in the state and you see other signs of indifferent governance.

The state’s revenue collection mechanism has crumbled so much that Punjab now generates additional revenues by either selling off government property or by tacking on cesses, levies and (even) octroi to its power bills.

At the same time, the state machinery is not responding to emergent problems. Take climate change. Punjab gets almost all its rainfall during the monsoon months. Over the last 15 years, the state has seen a decline in mean precipitation between June and September. In the last ten years, it has seen six “meteorological droughts”, the term for when rainfall is at least 25% below normal.

Work by IMD officials in Chandigarh suggests that these changes are manifestations of a new interaction between mid-latitude westerlies and India’s monsoons. Over the last ten years, the westerlies have been swinging more and more south, reaching as far down as the northern reaches of Madhya Pradesh. This trend is seen mostly in the monsoon and winter months. This is dramatically changing the nature of monsoonal rain in the state.

Ask farmers about this and they say, nowadays, we get one good crop in a year – not two.

And yet, adaptation and mitigation in Punjab are non-existent. Farm extension work in the state – where scientific information was sent down to the villages – has collapsed.

That is remarkable. The state had a worldclass extension system not so long ago – the one which gave India its green revolution. It is moribund now.


Where does the state go from here?

State elections are a year away. It appeared that the people are eager for change. It showed in the spontaneous protests, despite the crackdowns. It showed in the sudden vote surges that benefitted Manpreet Badal first and then the Aam Aadmi party.

In that sense, it looked like they were searching for alternatives. But it is not clear if the Congress is any better than the Akalis. It had, for one, created a worse monopoly in liquor than the Badals. It gave a statewide permit to Ponty Chadha. And then, there is AAP. In the last elections, says Sumail Singh Sidhu, a former convenor of AAP in Punjab, the party went to polls with a single anti-Badal plank.

It did not, says Sidhu, build wider solidarities. He was one of the first people this reporter met after reaching Punjab. Over a long conversation, the former professor at Delhi’s Khalsa College said: “The state and its people are searching for a political reimagination. People are taking to the streets clear about some of the immediate targets but not able to weave a full tapestry. In that sense, there is a serious crisis of leadership.”

In the meantime, given rising uncertainty, people seemed to be drawing deeper into new religions.

This, incidentally, seems to be a running refrain. Even in Odisha, the lack of development, the rise of uncertainty and a jump in aspirations have coincided with the mushrooming of babas. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. Says Ronki Ram, dean (faculty of arts) at Chandigarh’s Panjab University. “A rise in religiosity can give rise to new confrontations. People will get angry not because their survival is in danger, but because they think they are discriminated against due to their religion. Therefore, they reason, if they save their religion, they will save themselves.”

Such are the costs of misgovernance.

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