There is something common between the right-wing national media and strategic commentariat, a miniscule section of the Sikh ‘diaspora’, and certain political outfits, especially the ruling Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party that is attempting to find political space in Punjab. 

All of them like to paint a picture of Panjab’s social fabric and reinforce stereotypes. They are then supported by doomsday analyses, which focus only on Panjab’s problems.

There is not an iota of doubt that there are a myriad of challenges that afflict Panjab today – from the economic to the political. Yet, it would be a bit of a stretch to argue that things are irretrievable. 

Three key challenges

If one were to look at the challenges, the first would be the redressal of the legitimate economic demands of Panjab. This primarily includes the growing water shortage issue. Panjab already shares large amounts of water with the neighbouring states of Haryana and Rajasthan, which compounds the scarcity. This issue is often relegated to the sidelines, but is a genuine concern of Panjab and can not be shoved under the carpet.

Farmers inspecting a water well in a field, Ladiankala, Panjab, India. | Source: Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, Flickr

The second long standing issue has been the fact that Panjab has no capital of it’s own. Chandigarh, which was meant to be the state’s capital, is a Union Territory and the capital of Haryana. 

The third is the state’s average governance over the past two decades or so and numerous socio-political challenges spurred by that. Among them, the drug problem remains of particular concern. 

Some socioeconomic success

In terms of many economic indicators, Panjab is no longer where it was a few years ago. The state’s debt has steadily risen, crossing Rs 3 lakh crore in 2023.

Yet, even a cursory glance at the figures mentioned in the Economic Survey of India (ESI) 2022-23 reveals that Panjab is not in the abyss, as is often projected, merely to push a particular agenda. 

For instance, Panjab’s unemployment rate is 6.8% as against the national unemployment rate of 8.6%. This figure can certainly be better. Industries have moved out of Panjab in recent years, not only due to ‘security reasons’, but also because neighbouring states, such as Himachal Pradesh, have provided special incentives. Those who simplistically link the growing sense of frustration or outward migration from Panjab to the level of unemployment are being reductive. There are obviously other factors.

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In terms of average life expectancy at birth, according to the Survey, Punjab has improved from 71.6 (2010-2014) to 72.7 (2014-2018). The drug situation is a serious challenge, sure. But, due to excessive use of fertilizers, there has also been a rise in cancer cases in the Malwa belt. While there are other such health concerns that need to be addressed, it is not in the doldrums as is often perceived. For instance, before the COVID-19 hit India, it was one of the best performing states in the State Health Index.

In spite of all the myth-making that some other states are doing better than Punjab in agriculture, the state still fits in the top three in food grain production. It produced 28.21 million tonnes of food grains in 2020-2021, while having only 1.5% of the land share of the country. Many in the national media question Panjab’s exceptionalism in agriculture, but the state is likely to play an important role in the country’s food security in the imminent future.

It is a different issue that for ensuring that agriculture is sustainable and to check the ever declining ground water levels, Punjab needs to diversify and look at other commodities and think of a more sustainable model of agriculture.

A farmer in Ludhiana, Panjab, India. | Source: Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, Flickr

In terms of school education too, while there has been talk about the Delhi model of education, Punjab got the first rank in the National Achievement Survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2021. NAS assesses the learning outcomes of students through tests conducted for students of classes 3, 5, 8 and 10. In the NAS, Panjab students fared well in Mathematics and English.

Moreover, there’s always much chatter around the increasing immigration to the West, especially Canada, in recent years from Panjab. Yes, there is a growing concern on the state’s demography and the fact that many individuals are not migrating for better opportunities, but out of hopelessness and the drug problem. 

As mentioned above, while it is true that Panjab needs a new economic paradigm, some of its problems are exaggerated by individuals from different ideological prisms to push their agenda.

De-hyphenating the issues 

There is no doubt that some genuine legitimate grievances – river distribution with other states, the lack of a state capital, and a number of issues pertaining to the traumatic phase of ‘militancy’ between 1978-1993 – need to be addressed.

This also includes the release of ‘Bandi Singhs’ – Sikh prisoners convicted in connection with alleged involvement in militant activities. The Indian government had announced the release of these Sikh prisoners in 2019, and while some individuals have been getting parole, there is a growing clamour for their release. The mainstream parties, including the Congress, have advocated for their release.

One of the stereotypes about Panjab is viewing all protests from the lens of ‘Khalistan’ or more generally, a communal lens. What is conveniently forgotten is that a number of protests in recent years – most prominently the farmers’ protest in 2021 – centred on bread and butter issues have been peaceful and disciplined. There has generally been a growing awareness on economic and environmental issues. 

Protests such as the Mattewara morcha, which compelled the Panjab government to scrap a textile project at Mattewara Park in Ludhiana, and others against factories causing pollution have been able to draw support from a cross-section of society. More recently, the issue of Punjab’s water sharing has begun to draw attention and there have been a number of peaceful protests to raise awareness on the issue.

Hence, there is a growing realisation that such issues need to be articulated through the language of economic and environmental, rather than expressly political, concerns. 

Why Panjab needs inward introspection

If Panjab has fallen below its potential, it is important to not pin all the blame on the central government, as is often done. There is a need for serious introspection not just within the political parties, but the problematic discourse of the state on certain important issues.

While Panjab is an agrarian state, it cannot neglect the industry and afford to be insular in a globalised world. Of late, industrialisation has been opposed due to demographic and environmental concerns. But, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A road map is required for a kind of industrialisation that is suitable for the state.

Panjab needs to put the expertise of the diaspora to good use. This means looking beyond the diaspora only in western nations, and looking to those living in countries like Malaysia and Kenya. It also means focusing on how Panjabis who have achieved success in the spheres of business, innovation and research can contribute towards the growth of the state.

A Gurudwara in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another area where the state needs to focus is greater global air connectivity – with the west of course, but also Central Asian countries, the Gulf and Iran. Most importantly, it is important to ensure that protests are peaceful and can enlist support from different communities and economic groups.

Commentators from outside the state tend to exaggerate not just Panjab’s security challenges, but also, to some extent, its overall economic landscape, which remains far below potential, but hasn’t yet collapsed. It is also important to not view all problems of the state from a security prism and in the process, repeat the mistakes of the past.

Over the past few days, the aftermath of the crackdown on Amritpal Singh, the recently-anointed chief of Waris Punjab De, has been a throwback to the past. Targeted action against elements perceived to be a threat to law and order could have been done without the alarm and hype. The suspension of internet accounts of journalists and activists only made things worse.

The fact that the state has been largely peaceful, despite the mainstream media narrative, is a perfect reiteration that even in the face of all the challenges, the people of Panjab want to get on with their lives.

Views expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and do not reflect the Eleventh Column’s editorial line.

Featured image by Dhally Romy on Pexels.