by Diditi Mitra
We spotted this ‘foreign-made’ (read: made in the West) convertible car on the side of the highway. It was a rather odd place for it – on the side of Grand Trunk Road, surrounded by villages. The car was quite old. As the photograph shows, it had not been driven in a very long time. The yellow and grey paint on the car had faded. Or, perhaps what appeared to be grey paint is actually not paint at all. The yellow paint may have just been stripped down, showing the metal underneath. From a distance, the wind shield seemed to be covered with a thick coat of dust. Yet, the owner felt a need to keep the vehicle. It was enclosed in a wooden shed. And, like the car, the shed itself was falling apart. So then, why keep the car along with the broken and lonely shed that stood around it? Was it an attempt to hold onto glories of the past? We wondered.
While we cannot offer the backstory to this once glorious vehicle that must have been the envy of all, there are glimpses into Punjab’s economy through the decades that can help us reflect on the overall economic condition of the state.
A cursory review suggests that Punjab’s economy has been in decline over the last several decades. Ajay Jakhar, Chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, in an article published in the Indian Express calls Punjab a change over from a “breadbasket” to a “basket case.” Per capita income (PCI) for the state, as one of the indicators of this decline, slid behind Maharashtra by 1997-98, Gujarat was added to that list by 2003-04 and Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh sped ahead of Punjab’s PCI by 2013-14. In light of this steady decline, it is not surprising that the unemployment rate of the state increased as well, as did the state’s gross fiscal deficit.
Nirvikar Singh of University of California at Santa Cruz asserts that the instability in agriculture created by the Green Revolution and a lack of investment in industries, given the central government’s patterns of investment as well as fears of investment in a state that is strategically located along the frontier, impeded growth of industries in Punjab. Although Punjab did gain somewhat from economic liberalization, it was much after the process began in the early 1990s that the state felt its impact. Political turmoil, according to Singh, which stretched out into the mid-1990s was one of the obstacles in extending the benefits of economic liberalization to Punjab. More importantly, even when industry was attempted in Punjab, it was limited, Singh maintains. For Punjab, the armed services has always been a fall back position for employment, as has been immigration to various parts of the world. But, those sources of revenue have not been enough to improve Punjab’s overall economic health.
In such a context, it is interesting to consider that Punjab is one of the states with high rates of farmer suicide. The extent to which such patterns are connected to the deteriorating conditions of the state is beyond the scope of our analysis. But, it is certainly an aspect of social behavior that should be considered in explanations of downward spiraling of the state’s economy, especially the ways in which quality of investment in agriculture and the rising inequality gap in India itself has contributed to frustration among small farmers with meager landholdings.
The photograph of the broken down foreign vehicle is symbolic of the tough economic conditions that Punjab has to battle. It’s trajectory depends upon better plans for not just the economy, but also on the ways in which the entire package of social progress is envisioned for the nation by its leaders.
(Go here for the first post in the series)