In August last year, 54-year-old Harjith Singh encountered the worst farming crisis he had faced in recent times. The cotton crop that he sowed on his land in Guru Har Sahai tehsil in Ferozepur was struck by whitefly, a pest that sucks sap from the underside of leaves. Hardly one-fourth of the cash crop was saved, forcing the farmer to wait for government compensation to get some relief from the financial losses he suffered.
Getting the money, however, was not an easy task. "In our area, the sarpanch [elected village head] focused on obtaining the compensation to party members first," the farmer said. Not being associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has ruled the state for the last nine years in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, was a serious drawback for the farmer. “In Punjab, only two things work,” said Singh. “You should either be a party member or a wealthy man. I am neither.”
In October 2015, the government announced a package of Rs 640 crore for the affected farmers. A relief amount of Rs 8,000 per acre was fixed. But farmers spent thousands on pesticides alone in their desperate attempts to save the crop. Each round of spraying cost anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 depending on the pesticide used.
In the initial weeks after the relief was announced, farmers said that they were shocked when some of them received cheques for amounts as low as Rs 500. The government cited joint land holdings to divide the money.
It was at this point that Harjith Singh came in contact with the Aam Aadmi Party. Led by local volunteers in Ferozepur, the largest cotton-producing district in Punjab, the party held agitations alleging corruption in the distribution of compensation. One volunteer even helped him get inputs on saving whatever crop was left in his field, the farmer claimed.
Such stories of the partisan behaviour of village heads belonging to the Akali Dal are common across the state. While the Congress too focused on the alleged nexus between Akali Dal members and the administration, AAP's clean slate, of not carrying the baggage of having ruled Punjab in the past, has helped it ride this discontent.
Along with five of his neighbours from a village near Kotkapura in Faridkot district, Kirnail Singh reached the Aam Aadmi Party's farmers' rally in Moga on September 11 to get a glimpse of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. He is more interested in seeing the Akali Dal being defeated than in AAP’s victory.
A paddy farmer, Kirnail Singh said last year was particularly bad for him since the price of basmati, a variety of rice, fell in the market. The farmer added that he had accumulated debts of about Rs 2 lakh. It was AAP's promise of waiving debts of farmers that has attracted his attention, as also the image of Kejriwal being a leader tough on corruption. "Whatever scheme the Akali government announced, it has served to fill the pockets of sarpanches,” he said, angrily.
Take the example of the atta-dal scheme, launched in 2007, to provide wheat and pulses at subsidised rates to the poor. Under this scheme, wheat is provided at Re 1 per kg and pulses at Rs 20 per kg. Kirnail Singh alleged that his family received poor quality wheat many times. This is a common problem in a number of places in Punjab, and has forced women to protest before ration shops. Some beneficiaries also complained of a lack of supply of pulses.
On August 30, a Dalit woman interrupted Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's address at a public rally in Muktsar when he was speaking about the atta-dal scheme. The woman said while many schemes were announced, the benefits did not reach the common people.
The Punjab government has projected this scheme as its greatest success. This has attracted criticism, with the Opposition pointing to a steep rise in the scheme’s beneficiaries just before the 2014 general elections. Government data shows 1.43 crore people, more than half the state's population of 2.77 crore, have been brought under its ambit. In the months preceding the Lok Sabha elections, some 13.5 lakh beneficiaries were added to the scheme, leading to allegations that even people undeserving of the welfare scheme accessed it.
In 2014, the State Food and Drug Laboratory found that samples of the wheat distributed under this scheme were not edible. In April, the Reserve Bank of India found Rs 12,000 crore worth foodgrains missing from godowns in the state, something the state government has denied.
An official in Moga, on condition of anonymity, said the intrusion of ruling party men worked at two levels. While the sarpanches held sway over schemes that required the infrastructure of the village administration, they were also in constant touch with halka-in-charges, the Akali Dal appointees in charge of each Assembly constituency. “Unless something drastic happens and gets the attention of the high command, you cannot escape the control of these people," the official claimed.
It is this anger against men linked to the Akali Dal that AAP has taken full advantage of. Ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it won four of the 13 seats in the state, AAP officials have held meetings in several districts and have promised to get rid of the halka-in-charge system if voted to power. These low-profile meetings were similar to those AAP conducted in Delhi in the run-up to the 2015 Assembly polls.
Business under stress
In 2009, the World Bank concluded that Ludhiana was the best place to operate a business in India. But the ground situation seems to be entirely different now. Attracted by tax holidays provided in neighbouring states such as Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, a number of factories have moved out of the district.
Brajesh Jindal is an entrepreneur in Ludhiana who shifted from the Akali Dal to the Aam Aadmi Party in April. The businessman said while high electricity charges and lack of infrastructure were primary reasons for many small and medium enterprises to move out of Punjab, corruption was also at the top of the list.
Jindal alleged that when he was part of the industrialists' wing of the Akali Dal, he and several others had asked for a thorough probe into alleged fictitious Value Added Tax accounts in the state. Jindal claimed these alleged fake accounts obtained reimbursements at the cost of genuine ones, crippling small businessmen who require the money for rotation. His accusations turned out to be true, when in May the police busted a racket in which the excise department was duped out of over Rs 10 crore by people operating fake companies and doing fake billing. “What has been found is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “This is a rotten scam.”
Adding to this was the entry of Akali leaders and their families into business. "Can you expect the state machinery to collect taxes efficiently from companies linked to the Badals?" asked Jindal.
Like Jindal, many small-scale businessmen have moved to AAP hoping for a new government and better administration. Their central demand is to ensure those connected to the Akali Dal leadership are not allowed to monopolise businesses.
While it earlier positioned itself as the party of the middle and lower classes, AAP was quick to grasp the discontent among small and medium entrepreneurs. When he visited Ludhiana last week, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal met many such businessmen at a hotel. Sources in the party said he promised transparent tax collections and reduction in electricity prices if voted to power.
However, the bigger industrialists, who have operations in multiple states, vouch for the efficiency of the Parkash Singh Badal government in providing quick clearances. General Secretary of the Chamber of Industrial and Commercial Undertakings, Upkar Singh Ahuja, who runs an automobile components business, said “the corruption level in Punjab was much lower than states like Madhya Pradesh.”
Ahuja has no faith in the Aam Aadmi Party. Citing the troubles Kejriwal was facing in Delhi, Ahuja said Punjab needed a strong leader who understood what the industry wanted. “There is neither agriculture nor industries in Delhi operating on a scale that we see in Punjab," he said, adding that AAP had no experience of running an industrialised state and hence could not be trusted at this juncture.
There is also the question of good relations with the Union government. Some industrialists feel since the Badals were in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party that leads the government at the Centre, getting funds would be an easier job. On the other hand, AAP considers the BJP its primary enemy, which could cost Punjab in terms of new projects.
Across the state, AAP's strategy seems to be focused on attending to specific issues of different sections. But this does not mean the party has reached out to everyone. While farmers with landholdings and small industrialists have been promised many soaps, the peasantry and industrial workers feel left out.
An old building behind the industrial hub of Sherpur Chowk in the outskirts of Ludhiana provides a stark picture of the poverty that industrial labourers face. Visitors who enter this ghetto are welcomed by an overflowing drain that has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The building, with its cracked ceilings and half-plastered walls, houses the families of about 200 workers who share its 107 rooms. Each room is just over 100 sqft. There are just six toilets for about 450 persons. The women bathe inside the rooms.
For 22 years, Khir Mohan, one of its residents, has been working at a bicycle components manufacturing firm. "Despite all these years, I am still a contract worker," he said. The Punjab government revised the minimum wage rate for different kinds of work in April. Since Mohan has been categorised as highly-skilled labourer, he is entitled to a minimum pay of Rs 382 per day, which works out to Rs 14,280 per month. "My monthly pay is just over Rs 9,000,” he said. “I have two sons and one daughter. This room is all that we could afford."
Hanuman Dubey, a union leader in the industrial cluster, said that the nexus between officials and industries ensured that workers' rights are trampled upon with impunity. He repeated the same story that one hears across Punjab. “Members of the ruling party have entered many companies,” said Dubey. “The wages situation continues to worsen.”
Vinod Kumar Tiwari, another union member, stated that many companies do not provide even statutory benefits such as Provident Fund.
With a number of industries moving out of Punjab, the supply of labour has remained constant whereas the demand has decreased, he said. "This means we are at the mercy of the existing companies. Complaining doesn't do much."
Compounding the trouble is the influx of labour from neighbouring states, who work for lower wages, and are hence preferred by small companies.
While Dubey and Tiwari felt there was no difference between the governments of the Akali Dal and Congress, it was the attitude of the Aam Aadmi Party that has worried them.
“They keep saying they are for the common people,” said Tiwari. “But nobody from the party has reached out to us. In December 2015, many of us spent money and went to the party's rally. But now, Kejriwal has the time to meet industrialists but not poor labourers.”
What the Aam Aadmi Party views as its strength also turns out to be its biggest weakness. In cities and towns, the party overwhelmingly focuses on the educated middle class. The issues that it tackles, such as corruption and infrastructure development, resonate more with the educated sections than with people like Mohan and Dubey.
In the rural areas, the party's focus remains on landed farmers at the cost of the peasantry. In the village of Talwandi Khuman on the outskirts of Amritsar, Gurdeep Singh, member of the All India Agriculture Workers' Union, said tenancy agreements are so complex in the region that those who farm on leased lands hardly make enough to feed themselves. “In some parts of Punjab, the rent alone goes up to Rs 30,000 a year," he claimed. Thus, when whitefly attacked the cotton crop last year, tenant farmers were the worst hit. "But it was the landed farmers who cornered all the compensation,” said Singh. “Our union made this point and asked the government to increase the compensation from Rs 8,000 per acre to Rs 20,000 per acre.”
Many of such tenant farmers invariably turn out to be Dalits, who constitute close to 32% of Punjab's electorate.
In many villages surrounding Amritsar, AAP is non-existent. Women in particular claim ignorance of the party itself. That is not surprising as AAP’s women wing is the weakest among political parties in Punjab. Of AAP’s 32 candidates announced so far, there is only one woman.
Equal work, equal pay
For women, parity in wages and efficiency in the work provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme dominated demands.
Baljeet Kaur, leader of the scheme’s union for women in Talwandi Khuman in Amritsar district, said the sarpanches hold the job cards in many villages and allot work arbitrarily. "Our payment is also delayed,” she said. “Many are never told how much they have worked and how their payment is calculated.”
In the agriculture fields, there was a huge gap between wages paid to women and men. “Men get Rs 280 for a day's work,” said Kaur. “Women get Rs 100 or Rs 120 depending on the work. This is why, many women have stopped going for farm work and prefer MNREGS.”
When asked about the selective outreach of the party, AAP's Punjab coordinator Sanjai Singh said the demands of the labourers were included in the party’s manifestos. "Reaching out is a process,” he said. “In another month or two, every section of society would be covered.”
It is also women who are most disturbed by the recent controversies that have hit AAP. In pockets surrounding Amritsar, when AAP minister Sandeep Kumar was embroiled in a scandal, the Akali Dal was quick to seize the opportunity to hit out at Kejriwal, with campaigners accusing AAP of being a party of “sex scandals”. Earlier this month, 82 AAP functionaries resigned in Amritsar accusing leaders of seeking sexual favours from women in return for election tickets.
Realising the damage such a campaign could do, especially among the middle class for whom morality is a crucial point, AAP has tried to turn the tables on the Akali Dal by alleging that the Badals were behind the scandals.
Sanjai Singh is also confident that in the long run, such allegations will be pushed aside and real issues will come to the fore. “Our concentration is on livelihood issues,” he said. “Closer to the polls, this is what will matter.”
Perhaps the most crucial issue that has hit the Akali Dal is the prevalence of the drug menace across Punjab. After AAP's stunning performance in the Lok Sabha elections, when it won four of the 13 seats in the state, the ruling party realised it was crucial to show it was serious about cracking down on the drug mafia in the state.
In villages around Jalandhar and Patiala, the drug problem has hit the youth hard. In Dafarwal, as in many other villages, local residents decided to form their own teams to curb the influx of narcotics into their homes.
While the leadership took on the Akali Dal for the alleged apathy it showed in handling the problem, the volunteers of the Aam Aadmi Party understood that helping addicted youth out of the habit could endear the party to the families and local communities.
Amandeep Singh, an AAP volunteer in Jalandhar, said partymen began focusing on addicts rather than the drug mafia since de-addiction had become a costly affair. "Targeting the drug lords without being in power is futile,” said Singh. “Instead, we decided to get the youth out of this habit."
The drug users, most of them in the age group of 20 to 30 years, were also being arrested on a large scale for possession of drugs. The laws are such that mere possession of drugs could lead to incarceration for years.
In most places, there was also the notion that the drug mafia could not have become so strong without the nexus of the police and the administration. However, a senior police officer in Patiala said since 2013, thousands of drug sellers have been arrested. "We are keeping constant vigil on all identified supply routes," he said. Crime statistics in Punjab show there were 11,593 arrests under the Narcotics Act in 2015.
Until May, the Aam Aadmi Party looked all set to score an upset in the Assembly elections in the state. But that changed quickly.
Most of the party's woes are self-manufactured and exposed the lack of political experience among its volunteers. The Akali Dal, which was struggling to find any major issues to target the Aam Aadmi Party, was handed a controversy on a platter when AAP's youth manifesto put on its cover the image of the Golden Temple and AAP’s election symbol, a broom. This did not go down well with the Sikh community.
This fiasco in July was the start of the campaign by the party’s rivals that dubbed AAP a party of outsiders that did not understand Punjab or its people. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal accused Kejriwal of having a "sick mind" for desecrating the holiest shrine of the Sikhs.
Since July, the Aam Aadmi Party has faced sex scandals and the ouster of its former convenor Succha Singh Chhotepur, who had turned into a popular Sikh face after 2014.
But all these accusations aside, it is clear on the ground that the Akali Dal is facing voters fatigued by nine years of its rule. While many want a change, it remains to be seen whether AAP can stop making immature mistakes and take advantage of the discontent. This three-way fight between the Akali Dal, the Congress and AAP for the state’s 117 Assembly seats could turn out to be the closest that Punjab has witnessed in the last two decades.
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