As Sidhu & Amarinder Steal Headlines, Punjab’s Real Concerns Go Unnoticed
Brain drain, education and unemployment are a few issues that the media and Punjab’s leaders can heed.
As Punjab gears up for the Assembly election in early 2022, leaders of political parties are in great action. The engagement is less in terms of resolving issues and more focused on allegations and blame games. A flurry of strategic press conferences, media briefings, social-media marketing and aggressive speeches have begun. In the process, issues afflicting Punjab have been laid bare, even as they take a backseat.
Problems such as cancellation of Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), action against big political names allegedly involved in sacrilege crimes, drug rackets, land-mining mafia, transport mafia, etc., have become the rallying points. The aggression and intensity being displayed by a few politicians is so high it seems as if the last four-and-a-half years of Congress rule was just a trial period, and it’s only in these six months that the government can act.
The most sensitive issues have been raked up and are being used to attract voters through high-voltage political stunts. Unfortunately, Punjab is once again being dragged into the electoral phenomenon of irrational claims and unrealistic promises.
Punjab At a Glance
This year, during the peak season for paddy transplantation, the demand for power in Punjab touched 14,225 MW. However, the supply was just 12,800 MW. The vast gap of 1,425 MW triggered power cuts of up to 14 hours in the domestic sector, leaving the government embarrassed and consumers harassed. Not only this, the rates of electricity in the state are also the highest in the entire northern region.
The power crisis has also led to significant losses to the agriculture and industrial sectors in the state. But the issue is quite complex and comprises various factors, including depleting water levels, excess paddy cultivation, high subsidies to the agricultural sector, bureaucratic corruption, high running costs of thermal plants, wrong private power agreements, lack of research, among others.
However, the political leadership in Punjab, especially the faction led by the newly appointed President of the Punjab Congress, Navjot Sidhu, has magnified the power crisis as an outcome of the Private Power Agreements (PPAs) introduced by the previous Akali Dal government led by the Badals. Limiting the power crisis in Punjab only to PPAs is a selective approach, and it serves the blame-game tactics and the political ambitions of the concerned leadership effectively.
The higher education scenario of Punjab is also in the doldrums. A large number of teaching vacancies in government colleges are lying vacant. The last recruitment of teaching faculty on a regular basis in government colleges happened in 1996.
Most teachers in government colleges are working on guest, ad-hoc or contractual basis on low salaries and extremely unfair service conditions. Even more tragic is the fact that the salaries of guest/contract teachers are being drawn from PTA funds of colleges, which is charged from students.
In comparison to neighbouring states, for a population of about 2.50 crore, Haryana has 170 Government Colleges; for a population of nearly 80 lakhs, Himachal has 94 Government Colleges; Punjab has only 47 government colleges for a population of 2.80 crore, and those, too, are in a miserable condition.
Massive Brain Drain
The high migration of youth to foreign lands in recent years, Canada in particular, reveals the tragic failure of successive state governments in creating employment opportunities and a suitable socio-economic environment. No doubt, the migration of Punjabis abroad has its historical and cultural dimensions, but the recent trends are far more different. It is pertinent to mention that the state’s unemployment rate is 7.3% against the all-India average of 4.8% (as per CMIE data 2021); Punjab also has the highest unemployment rate in the region.
With the agriculture sector in deep crisis and a large number of farmers leaving the field, industry almost negligible with many manufacturing firms shifting to neighbouring states, the IT sector still under-developed, and the government having extensively adopted the contract/outsourcing mechanism, there are not many options left for the skilled youth of the State.
As per well-acknowledged reports, on average, over 1.25 lakh youngsters from the state migrate to foreign countries every year. Youth from Punjab constituted over 60% of migration to Canada in the last four years.
In a large number of villages of Punjab, older people outnumber the youth. With the rate at which the exodus of the youth is continuing, Punjab will soon be a land of the old and infirm.
The employees of almost every state department are on the streets protesting for their salaries, increments, pensions and service conditions. The majority of employees in state government services recruited in the last 15 years are working on contractual or outsourcing terms. Their salaries are extremely low and service conditions miserable.
In addition to this, qualified, unemployed teachers protesting for jobs in front of the lavish houses of ministers and then being lathi-charged by the state police has become a common sight in Punjab. The way the teaching fraternity is being treated by the political class and bureaucracy speaks volumes about the vision of the state government.
Tall Promises Amid Fiery Political Discourse
Despite all this, it’s not vital issues but high-octane speeches, media briefings and sharp allegations that have become the focus of the political discourse in Punjab. With the Assembly election just six months away, sky-high claims are being made by politicians and parties.
The Sukhbir Badal-led SAD has come up with a 13-point charter of initiatives that it claims would be implemented if the party comes to power in 2022. It includes free power up to 400 units per month to all households, a health insurance cover of ₹10 lakh per annum and a minimum support price for vegetables, fruits, and milk as well.
The Aam Admi Party (AAP) which is quite slow as of now, is banking on its Delhi model. However, AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal on his Punjab visit promised a 24-hour supply of electricity and free power to every household up to 300 units. The AAP’s promise of free electricity is being termed as a “guarantee” and is backed by its promises delivered in Delhi.
The most aggressive wave of claims and promises is coming from the newly elected Punjab Congress President, Navjot Singh Sidhu. He is promising power supply at ₹3 per unit, end of mafia raj and punishment to the culprits behind sacrilege incidents. Catching the Badals and Bikramjit Majithia (brother-in-law of Sukhbir Badal and the Revenue Minister in the previous Akali-BJP Government) and putting them behind bars for their alleged involvement in sacrilege incidents and drug racket remains the focus in Sidhu’s fiery speeches. His speech on 15 August, too, was full of aggression against the Akali leadership — Sukhbir Badal and Bikramjit Majithia in particular. The content of verbal attacks ranges from public issues to personal relationships, political rivalries, and even mimicries.
No doubt, Punjab is seeing a political churn, inner-party tussles, new faces and coalitions. But what is most embarrassing is the wave of promises that are more about political vendetta than the welfare of Punjab. Interestingly, Sidhu is accusing the Sukhbir Badal-Majithia duo on one side and targeting his own government under Captain Amarinder Singh on the other.
Promises and Reality: A Massive Difference
The political mess in Punjab has placed the state at a crossroads. The promises and claims being thrown about are incongruent with the socio-economic realities and the current potential of the state. Punjab is under a debt of over ₹3 lakh crore, but promises are being made for free or cheap electricity, an increase in subsidies, MSP on fruits and vegetables, etc.
The new industrial sector is uninspired, existing industrial houses have shifted their units to neighbouring states, the IT sector is weak and the public sector is struggling. But lakhs and lakhs of jobs are being guaranteed.
Political opportunism is at its peak as the sentiments of the electorate are being manipulated. There are no plans, road map or reforms in the picture. It’s all about accusations, and promises.
The narrative being churned out is based on politics of vendetta, individual ego and political ambitions. The inner tussle within the Congress, in particular, has become an all-important discussion. Three questions hound all media space — who supports Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who is in favour of Navjot Sidhu, and who are the leaders who have developed intense differences with Captain and are thus raising their voice to replace the Chief Minister before the 2022 election.
Instead of finding solutions to the miseries of people, the political system and the administrative machinery of the state are burdened by issues within the ruling Congress. Further, the crisis has evolved into a strange situation where the party in power is the opposition, too.
Under the garb of ‘conflict resolution’, personal political rivalries are running riot. In the current political narrative, ‘Punjab’ finds mention as a mere territorial entity. The socio-economic existence and the survival of the state is at stake.
(The author is a political analyst. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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