The Dark Side

The Other Punjab

Bharat Dogra

Whenever one discusses Punjab in some distant part of the country, invariably the response of the people there is that Punjab is the most developed part of the country which has done very well in the post independence period. In fact in villages in other parts of the country, 'Punjab' has become synonymous with high productivity and prosperity. So if someone has to say 'let's increase greatly farm production in our village', he is quite likely to say, "Let's make our village like Punjab', or 'Let's create another Punjab in our village'.

At a more scholarly level when various development indexes are prepared, Punjab is invariably placed somewhere at the top of the index.

While all this may swell the pride of Punjabis and all those who love Punjab, there is need for serious concern over some disturbing aspects of Punjab's development and social change.

One important aspect of the development debate is the extent to which a region and its people are able to preserve their nature-given, inherited strengths and build further on them.

Following this approach, one may identify three (among others) strengths bestowed bountifully on Punjab by nature. Firstly, partly due to the great rivers of Himalayan origin flowing in Punjab and their coniribution to maintenance of good groundwater levels as well, historically Punjab had a reputation of being very well endowed with water resources. Secondly, the Himalayan rivers also deposited a lot of fertile silt and this contributed to the exceptionally high fertility of Punjab fields. Lastly, partly due to the first two factors but also due to healthy traditions and food-habits, Punjab was always known as a land of strong, healthy, sturdy people.

All these three factors (there may be several others) contributed a lot to the flourishing of healthy and prosperous civilisation in Punjab since ancient times. The history of inheriting and building on these nature-given strengths goes back to thousands of years.

However if one looks back at just the past forty years or so, (or even particularly just the past twenty years), then there is a lot of evidence to show that in all these three important aspects, there has been a big decline. The natural fertility of Punjab's farmlands has declined rapidly. The water table in most parts of the state has fallen significantly and sometimes alarmingly. Lastly, the health of many people particularly youths has deteriorated due to a number of reasons, the most important being an alarming rise in drug addiction.

If these disturbing trends continue, future generations will ask older generations ‘which Punjab did you inherit and which Punjab did you leave behind for us?’ And concerned citizens will not be in position to answer these questions with any self-respect.

The concentration on a farm development strategy which relied on huge and increasing inputs of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides etc. exposed people in villages to high levels of pollution and toxicity. Friendly insects, birds and micro-organisms, the best natural friends of farmers, vanished from a vast stretch of farmland. Micro soil-nutrients were lost. The food grown in the land of highly depleted nutrients turned out to be less nourishing and more hazardous. A large number of cancer cases started getting reported from villages which had never heard of diseases. Water extraction (often due to ill-advised policies and wrongly promoted cropping changes) was so excessive that water-table started declining rapidly even in areas of water abundance.

Such issues were treated with apathy, or even when official attention was drawn to them, the remedial steps generally touched only the surface of the problems. Electoral compulsion and wrongly conceived competition among political parties led to adoption of populist policies which sometimes worsened the problems instead of finding solution.

In the case of drug addiction, the problem has grown to monstrous proportions within the life-span of a single generation. It is not the question of blaming a single government or political party. What did the successive governments do when this problem worsened rapidly during the last two decades. Everyone agrees that this is a problem which causes the greatest distress to people and drains the entire vitality of the society, particularly the younger generation. But as the problem grew year after year, what did the entire political system do?

Now it is being admitted that as many as 70 per cent of the state youths are affected by this growing menace of drug abuse, but why effective interventions were not made at a relatively early stage. True, the Afghanistan drug explosion had a fall-out and deliberate efforts were also made from across the border to encourage drug smuggling into Punjab, but this doesn't tell the entire tragic story. The domestic system should accept its part of the blame for the tragic situation in which Punjab (and particularly the youth of Punjab) finds itself in terms of rampant drug abuse and addiction.

It is still not too late to check this and other serious problems in Punjab, but first there should be an understanding at the highest levels about the importance and prioritisation of these social, health and environmental problems. Here social activists and media can make an important contribution by a sustained longer-term effort to ensure that such issues get the necessary importance and priority. All these serious problems need a multi-level response and once the priorities are well-established, carefully drawn up plans should set up a detailed agenda at various levels and also fix responsibilities for time-bound action.

Unfortunately as things stand today vested interests are so firmly entrenched in their selfish pursuits that they don't mind making big money even from such social and health disasters as drug addiction. Even some drug de-addiction centres are being run like money-making enterprises.

Clearly a lot needs to change and a beginning should be made by first having a different vision of development which can look beyond GNP, materialism and consumer goods. When the vision of development can include adequately the real welfare of people as well as the protection of environment, then it'll be in a much better and stronger position to face the emerging new challenges.

Vol. 46, No. 8, Sep 1-7, 2013

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