Jun 22, 2016

'Punjab's drug problem is a symptom of a deeper malaise' -- An Interview



Abhishek Chaubey's crime thriller has had its share of pre-release controversy. Though much of the discussion on the film has been on the drug menace in Punjab and its possible impact on the electoral fortunes of the political parties in the coming assembly elections, the reality is that the problem is a symptom of a bigger malaise. 

In an interview with KumKum Dasgupta, Chandigarh-based food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma unpacks for our readers Punjab's real problems.   

Q: Udta Punjab is about drugs and Punjab. But is that the real problem or a symptom of a deeper malaise (agricultural distress/governance issues/unemployment)? 

The easy availability of drugs has certainly played a big role in the drug addiction of Punjab. But the point being missed is that the drug menace in Punjab is a symptom of a deeper malaise that has afflicted rural Punjab for several decades, the cumulative impact clearly visible now with alcohol and drug abuse becoming too pronounced. It all began with agriculture turning unremunerative. Over the past few decades, worsening agrarian distress coupled with growing unemployment had led to frustration among the rural youth. Once the seat of Green Revolution, Punjab's agriculture was deteriorating. Fragmentation of land holdings, and the breakdown of joint family structures that acted as a social cushion had added to the decline in farm incomes turning agriculture into a loss making proposition. With employment opportunities outside agriculture very limited, this prompted many a farmers to sell off a major chunk of their meagre land holdings to ensure that their children are sent abroad, legally or illegally, in search of jobs. The trade in illegal migration activities has proliferated in the bargain. With many a popular Punjabi singers glorifying alcohol and drug use, in lot many ways alcohol and drug abuse became the easy means to overcome frustration. You just have to see the long queues before the liquor shops in the early morning hours to get an idea of the extent of alcoholism that prevails.         

Q: What are the reasons behind agrarian distress in the state and how has it been impacting Punjab’s society? 

That the frontline agricultural state should now turn into a hotbed of farmer suicides gives a loud message. While policy makers have been emphasisng on the need to increase crop productivity as the means to increase farm income, Punjab has demonstrated that the prescription is faulty. With 98 per cent assured irrigation, and with crop productivity higher than that in America, Japan, France and Germany the kind of agrarian crisis that prevails in Punjab defies every scientific logic. And this is where policy makers and agricultural economists have failed the farmers. It is basically the denial of a right and legitimate income to farmers, through the mechanism of Minimum Support Price (MSP), that has acerbated the farm crisis. As a result 98 per cent of the rural households are in debt. With not much scope for alternate means of employment or income generation, rural youth took to drugs and alcohol as the means to seek solace.    

According to the Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices (CACP), the net returns from wheat and rice in Punjab averages Rs 36,000 per hectare. In other words, the average monthly return from cultivating wheat-rice is a paltry Rs 3,000 per hectare. This is less than what a housemaid on an average earns. With cost of production multiplying and with output price remaining almost stagnant, the indebtedness grew manifold. The total debt Punjab farmers carry is almost 50 per cent higher than the State's GDP from agriculture. According to another study by Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), farm debt has multiplied 22 times in Punjab in the past decade. The average debt is 96 per cent of the income a household receives. Such high levels of rural indebtedness has led to an increasing number of farmers to commit suicide. 72 farmers suicides were reported in a 43-day period between April 1 and May 13 this year. Last year, in 2015, 449 farmers had officially committed suicide.  

Q: Across India, agrarian societies are facing tough times. Young people want to leave farm work but there is no employment. Is the situation in Punjab a timely reminder of the effects of economic distress on farming communities?

Yes, unless of course the government wants to ignore the warning signals. What is happening in Punjab, a progressive society, should serve as a lesson before the agrarian distress worsens in the rest of the country. Already the crisis on the farm is too severe. The two years of back-to-back drought in 13 States has pushed farmers further to the margins. Several years back, a NSSO study had shown that 42 per cent farmers wanted to quit agriculture if given a choice. This was primarily because farming had been deliberately turned into a losing proposition. But in the past 12 years, after 2004-05, the economy has been able to add only 1.6 crore jobs despite a high GDP growth. The jobless growth the country is witnessing is happening at a time when an estimated 1.25 crore people join the employment queue every year. Last year, in 2015, Labour Bureau tells us that only 1.35 lakh jobs were created, not even a drop in the ocean. In such a depressing scenario, agriculture alone has the potential to reboot the economy. If only the government was to create gainful employment in agriculture, by providing a higher income into the hands of the farmers, more demand could be created thereby leading a revival of the industrial and manufacturing sectors. On the contrary, we have heard Confederation of India Industry (CII) say that 300 million jobs will be created by 2025. What has not been told is that 300 million jobs were not created since Independence. A senior minister has often said that more road network being built creates more job opportunities, which means the focus is on creating dehari mazdoors. I don't think dehari mazdoor is what the rural youth have in mind when they look for jobs in urban areas. 

Q: Successive governments have been aware of Punjab’s internal crisis but looked the other way. Your comments 

Punjab's depressing farm scenario is actually the worst in the areas which are represented by the leadership of both the SAD and the Congress governments. The Badals hail from the Bathinda region, the cotton belt of Punjab, and Capt Amarinder Singh comes from Patiala, another region faced with agrarian distress. Patiala is adjoining to Sangrur which is a hotbed of farmer suicides. The Badal's will find it difficult to explain how in their tenure the region they represent turned into an area of high farm suicides, worsening water crisis, increasing cancer belt, and also has the dubious distinction of highest number of farmers quitting agriculture. The phenomenon of putting village for sale also began from Bathinda district. Both the SAD as well as the Congress certainly knew of the internal crisis but focused more on real estate and industry. Even the growing drug menace was widely known, but was kept under wraps. While it was known all these years, it has only flared up as a major issue in the run up for elections.      

Q: How much will this drug issue and the agrarian problems impact the coming polls?

It is too early to say whether the drug issue will impact the forthcoming elections. Although the prevailing agrarian distress is on the radar for each of the major political parties, but none of the parties have been able to spell out a corrective course of action so far. The effort certainly is to woo the rural electorate with promises of putting agriculture on track but only time will tell how sincere the promises turn out to be.  

Source: 'Punjab's drug problem is a symptom of a deeper malaise'. Hindustan Times, June 17, 2016

No comments: