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Neither ‘udta’ nor ‘padhta’ Punjab. Question is how India’s no. 1 state in 2003 fell to 13

Punjab, once India’s richest state, has slipped and fallen behind. MSP and subsidies should continue, but it needs to rediscover its entrepreneurial impulse.

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Singhu, the village at the key entry point to Delhi from the north on the Grand Trunk Road, is now the most familiar dateline in our newspapers.

Protesting farmers, predominantly from Punjab, have built a mini-township. Reporters and cameras going there can find new stories every day. A pizza langar, massage chairs, a spa, gyms, portable toilets, camper beds, clinics, pharmacies, and most importantly, libraries and reading rooms.

In this melee of news coverage, visuals, politics and controversies, admiration and sniggering, one picture caught my eye this last week. Manisha Mondal, a young news photographer from ThePrint, caught a wonderful moment at a reading room at the protest. Three women are engrossed in reading books; in fact, so caught up reading they do not notice the camera. Above them is a painted board. For me, it tells an important story.

The signboard reads, in Gurmukhi and Roman, “Udta Punjab nahinpadhta Punjab”. Translated and elaborated, it means, it isn’t a Punjab high on narcotics; it is an intellectually rich Punjab.

To those who might not follow Hindi cinema closely, Udta Punjab was the name of a 2016 Bollywood film which was described by some as a black comedy, but was in fact a deeply political venture. Punjab was heading for elections. The Akali-BJP coalition was in power. On no indicator, social or economic, Punjab was in any great shape. One big concern was rising drug addiction, especially among its young.

That, for the opposition Congress as well as the new entrant, Aam Aadmi Party, was the chosen vehicle to ride to power. Under two terms of the Akali-BJP government, the proposition was, Punjab had regressed into a heroin/smack/cocaine-addled state. Every village had almost the entire youth addicted. And Akali politicians, including a politician brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal, were the ‘kingpins’ of drug mafias.

The film even had a politician that mimicked that brother-in-law. It painted a doomsday portrait of Punjab where everybody was either high, or drunk, a gang-rapist, a smuggler or if a politician or a cop, complicit with all these. Truth to tell, while it got the entire country to focus on Punjab, it upset many in the state. We have problems, but not like these.

How many in Punjab can even afford heroin, forget cocaine — that your rich kids do in the bars and clubs of Delhi/Mumbai/Goa? The film came on the eve of the state election. The voters dumped the Akali-BJP coalition but also rejected AAP, riding the Udta Punjab wave, with the usual promises of jailing all powerful ‘mafiosi’, including the brother-in-law.

In the course of time, the Udta Punjab story deservedly faded. It gave Punjab a terrible name. Of course, the brother-in-law was exonerated by all agencies and even won defamation cases against some of the most respected newspapers.

That signboard, therefore, is Punjab’s response to that negative stereotyping of a people who take pride in their vibrancy, which goes way beyond bhangra. This is to say, there is more to us than you thought. As a child of united Punjab, I’d say, well done. We, in any of the three states that emerged post the division in 1966, have many faults, but we were never so bad.

Neither does all our youth snort at bhangra-pop concerts; nor do our fathers and uncles smuggle heroin rather than toil to put roti-chawal on your plate. Nor do they victimise the poorer migrant labourers who come in from Bihar to work on our farms by gang-raping and trafficking their young women: Remember the character ‘Bauria’ that Alia Bhatt played in that film. It was brilliantly done. But it was a scandalous characterisation for the state and its people.

Also read: Shambles over farmers’ protest shows Modi-Shah BJP needs a Punjab tutorial

The reality — if you spend any length of time in rural Punjab, or even talk to any of those you go to for sound-bites of ‘langar-eating’ selfie videos at Singhu, they will tell you proudly how well they treat their labour, or ‘bhaiyyas’; how they can’t do without them, build shelters, protect them.

At which point, I would begin to reflect on it a bit more deeply. Can’t I notice that some of the same eminent faces who painted the state as “udta Punjab” are also celebrating it as “padhta Punjab”? AAP is providing free Wi-Fi and toilets, besides political support. The pan-national Left is in the vanguard of the campaign. Nobody, nobody is talking of the drug menace which, by the way, is a reality, though not fractionally as portrayed in that scandalously defamatory film.

What has happened in the past four years for a Diljit Dosanjh to acknowledge such a remarkable udta-to-padhta turnaround? Has Amarinder Singh’s Congress government done such a spectacular job? Even he won’t claim it.

The cast of characters celebrating the glory of an omni-virtuous Punjab is the same as “udta Punjab”. Except that then, one stereotype suited them, now it’s another.

Also read: How an Akali govt order on dope tests never saw the light of day in Punjab

Punjab and Punjabis have their apprehensions, distrust and grievances over the farm laws. The state, especially its proud Sikh population, also has a defiant view of ‘Dilli Durbar’, ever since the days of Emperor Aurangzeb, who executed Guru Tegh Bahadur at what is now Gurdwara Sis Ganj (because he was beheaded there), in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. In the mid-19th century, there were the vicious Anglo-Sikh Wars. In the 20th, there have been a series of mass protests generally against what’s been seen as the bullying, or ‘dhakka’ of Dilli Durbar. That’s why the Akalis came up with the Anandpur Sahib resolution on Baisakhi Day, 1973. It sought a new definition of federalism that we could describe as Article 370+++.

The consequences were bad, most of all for Punjab, where several tens of thousands died in terrorism between 1981 and 1993. It was also a time when a crippling flight of talent, capital and entrepreneurship took place.

Ludhiana, among a few chosen cities in colonial India described as the Manchester of the east, lost its most entrepreneurial families. Punjab was left to remain as an agrarian state, as the rest of the country zoomed. Punjab missed the post-1991 growth surge.

Punjab was still complacent, being the richest state in the country by way of per capita income. But other states were industrialising and catching up. Year 2002-03 was the last when Punjab still had its top spot. Today, hold your breath, it is number 13. Its per capita income, sadly, is just about 15 per cent above the national average. Forget small states like Goa and Sikkim, it is now way behind Haryana (fifth) and Himachal Pradesh (12th) carved out of it. It can still take pride in the fact that the average Punjabi is three and a half times richer than a Bihari. But she also earns one-third of what a Goan does. And the Haryanvi, who didn’t inherit any river waters though the state had the driest lands, has a 50 per cent lead over the Punjabi.

Check out the data produced by a committee set up by the Amarinder Singh government, led by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, which had many experts, including from think-tank ICRIER. The data, which you can find here, shows how, even in agriculture, Punjab is falling behind. In the 15 years between 2004-05 and 2019, Punjab averaged 2 per cent farm growth. Bihar is 4.8, Uttar Pradesh 2.9. Even Haryana and Himachal beat it at 3.8 and 2.7. Maharashtra, already 25 per cent richer per capita, has seen its farms grow at 3.4 per cent, enlarging the gap.

Infographic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Infographic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Infographic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Infographic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Data tells us a harsher story. For sure, MSP and subsidies should continue for many years. But Punjab needs to rediscover its entrepreneurial impulse. Instead of limiting its ask to MSP, it should seek freedom to use its lands. Even Haryana has opened up more in that area, especially letting its farmers rent their lands for logistics and godowns. Punjab and its farmers need economic freedom, liberty of land use, not the wheat-paddy-MSP comfort. If they don’t see it now, and let this current adulation get to them, they will end up neither udta nor padhta, but closer to that other Punjab Bollywood has popularised: Fukra (puffed up) Punjab.

Also read: Punjab’s frustration & anger is rooted in its steep decline, now visible in farmers’ protests


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  1. Mr Gupta mentions all the evils propagated from Dilli Darbar…but forgets to mention the one most deeply etched in recent human history ..the 1984 Sikh massacre at the hands of then Congress govt (which was the actual darbar Shekhar Gupta bowed, and still bows, his head to).
    And Punjab has slipped from 13th to 17th position on GDP ranking BTW…under the great Congress state govt. But Mr Gupta, as one of the commentators above said, cherry picks his facts weave a nice one sided piece of fiction.
    When will we be relieved of such dubious sold out so-called journalists (???). ?!?!?

  2. I have only one thing to say that today’s Punjab which You see in India’s Map is not that which used to be at the time Of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The mass of people that You see in This Farmers protest is only Punjab. J&K, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Some part of UP, Rajasthan all are used to be parts of Old Punjab. The people of these states use to speak Hindi, Punjabi languages commonly and few Urdu. Now English also comes. Tukde karke Jagah ka alag naam karke sochte hai ki baat diya. Nahi Janab rehne wale to imne wo hi hai Jinhone Raja Porus, Luv Kush Ji, Valmiki Ji, Sikh Gurus, Pirs and Fakirs, Siddhas(most favourite place: Northern India), Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji, Hari Singh Nalwa Ji and nany more personalities ko Dekha hai. Not only this, but whole Pakistan also comes under Punjab.
    Govt. has stolen water from the Rivers of Punjab for providing to state that dont have water source. This means they are surviving because of Punjab.
    India is only a Union of States means if no one like to be part of it can become separate from it. Har ek state ka apna Haq hai.

  3. I uses to call Singhu congregation a Dal Chawal te Dharna ( you may alternate that with many other like tud-jalevi- te- nayi hilna), a seld edulating mindset that has gone much ahead of Utda & padta Punjab…. all good slogeneering thoghts.

    Mr. Gupta has well touched the need for the pre-potent jat of Punjab to ponder over what his next gen is good at. MSP being a short lived comfort as a Sarkar da prashad, boys are not interested in fields and crops more than a gyrating talent in Pop which rewards them manyfolds over a 100 acre of a cultivation, and of course rally for opening new malls and brand stores alonside the fields.
    Farming is over with them so what can keep them is Modern Farming and Agro Industries, but for duje-di- thaali- vich- v- dekhna- hai, so find a distracter in corporates who would gain while they gain too by modern farming and business.

    The ‘udta’ had once clouded an era of a mind with them, now FSP ( full support party) thrown in for free at the Delhi border is the new nasha wich will go down the lane if ‘Padta’ was for real.

    Jai jawan. Jai Kisan.

  4. It used to be a pleasure, to read Shekhar. No longer, he seems to be loosing touch with reality. Consider the following facts.

    Punjab, Kerala and Gujarat are India’s most prosperous and equitable states with high average standard of living and less disparity among households, according to a report by analytical firm Crisil.

    The research firm measured prosperity as the average standard of living on the basis of proportion of households owning four durable assets — television, computer, phone and automobile. Crisil’s equality index measured the differences in living standard between a capital city and the rest of the state.

    Success of agriculture has driven prosperity and equality in Punjab, Crisil said, while Kerala benefits from remittances. Gujarat is a prosperous state with high ownership of household assets, Crisil said. However, the difference between the capital city and the rest of Gujarat is borderline between high and low equality, the report noted.

    CRISIL study has been further reiterated by the recent NFHS survey data. The analysis of household affluence and poverty is based on a threefold classification. Households having at least six of the following eight assets or amenities—pucca house, electricity connection, phone (landline/mobile), television, AC/cooler, refrigerator, washing machine, and motorized vehicle (car/motorcycle/tractor/truck)—have been classified as affluent.

    Among all 640 districts for which NFHS provides data, Jalandhar district in Punjab has the highest share (88%) of affluence. Punjab is amongst the most affluent states and has the least poor population.

    The state has also been making the biggest contribution of wheat to the national pool. In the rabi season of 2019-20, Punjab contributed 129.12 LMT of wheat to the national pool, of the total 341.32 lakh metric tonnes. Its contribution to national pool was 37.83%.

    Breaking previous records in rice production, Punjab has bagged the Krishi Karman Award as as the best performing state in rice output. Punjab farmers produced 118.33 lac tonnes, accounting for 31% of rice contributed to the national pool.

    Obviously the rate of growth of very high performing sates can not be compared with states starting with a very low base.

    The above facts totally belie his analysis. Is he becoming bit of a fukra himself. One wonders!

  5. Why not more articles like…….. Anpadh bihar…. Bewkuf UP….. Self centered Southern states….. Economy eater Gujrat……!!!!!

  6. Loved reading this article with vintage SG flavour. Reassuring to see Shekhar not mincing words while confirming that “The pan-national Left is in the vanguard of the campaign.” And in the very next line “Nobody, nobody is talking of the drug menace which, by the way, is a reality, though not fractionally as portrayed in that scandalously defamatory film.” Hope Anurag Kashyap and his bunch of creative ‘geniuses’ read that.

  7. This is a bs article with random data points but that doesn’t draw to a conclusion or point. It’s almost like Adani paid them to write an article that ends with Punjab should let corporates in to build storage facilities like Haryana. By the article title I was hoping they would discuss the political corruption that stunted the states growth or policies implemented by center that prevented other industries to flourish. Punjab was a massive trade hub in northern India which has trade routes going all the way to Middle East. The center government implemented polices that stripped away a lot of those policies. I hope the writer learns that citing figures and sources doesn’t make a comprehensive story.

  8. Punjab was number 1 not because of hard work but adoption of green revolution abetted by non-Punjabi scientists. Punjab also had richest soil due to Indus river system as well as most advanced irrigation system – none of this because of Punjabis but due to topology/British/GOI.
    Punjabis also benefited by free land distribution in Delhi post 1947. There is no entrepreneurial instinct in them, mere skill is to use government given land to open shops. Now post 1991 – states with real human resource and talent – Karnataka, Andhra, Awadh, Gujarat have bloomed.

  9. SG is pandering to government stance for quite sometime on farmer laws without explaining how these laws benefits farmers. All his talk shows, coverage include people who are pro-laws. Even in those people have not been able to explain how farmers will benefits from these laws. They all harp on that these are free economy reforms and hence will benefit.

    They fail to tell that farming is not a typical business. Even in a free economy, entities that have most bargaining powers, prosper. With unlimited storage laws, corporates will control the supply side. Government already heavily controls prices to makes sure consumers get cheap food to keep inflation low. With this law, government will even stop buying whatever they buy now because overbuying is the whole problem that government is trying to solve for itself. So, farmers are going to lose from all sides and in turn push crores of people into poverty.

    When SG or government cannot explain the above, they start bad mouthing people and state of Punjab because it seems easier because people dont check whether data is showing full picture or half. Even here he is comparing growth% without considering base.

    They is playing a dangerous game.

  10. “For sure, MSP and subsidies should continue for many years.” How many? Another 50 years?

    Typical Shekhar Gupta. Try and please all. No spine to take a stand.

  11. Punjab has a great scope of high development but it has been blocked by bad relations with pakistan. Opening borders for trade with pakistan and central asia will jelp punjab to prosper as these areas have a lot of needs what can be fulfilled by punjab. Also, Punjab needs to build industry where goods are built here for the upper hilly areas not what is happening now where industries are being set up on hills for subsidies. It would reduce costs and stress on govt. budgets.

    • That is possible if there is free trade or controlled free trade but Pakistan will offer only ISI or military controlled trade. As article suggests there was flight of capital in 1980s till 2000 which has not been reversed.

    • Apparently you’ve been living on Mars these past decades, as, it’s an open secret that Pakistan will not allow Indian goods to transit its territory to Afghanistan or beyond to other Central Asian nations…though they will allow it in reverse, to a degree.

  12. To be honest it already appears to be “Fukra Punjab” to me. Punjabi’s especially the Jatt’s are too focused in looking cool rather than doing any real work. Apart from the wheat / rice cycle that is, they seem to have become used to exploiting the system without realising how it will affect them in the long run. I see no hope for them.

  13. Punjab has also missed out on industrialisation, being a border state. Something which has not stood in the way of the Jamnagar refinery complex. Could trade with the other half of Punjab help a little. Power tariffs for industry are high, because of subsidies for agriculture. Feel sad to read of the desperation of young Punjabis to emigrate, often without proper travel documents, placing themselves in harm’s way. Stories of the generosity and hospitality of the Sikhs from this agitation are heartwarming.

  14. Bit of a confusing prescription. On one hand the author asks for MSPs and subsidies to continue and on the other hand wants Punjabi farmers to discover their entrepreneurial talent. The truth is both are not possible simply because the pampered are incapable of entrepreneurship. Punjabi flamboyance has always been a bit of a fluff, considering that in reality the state lags behind others which have not had the benefits of MSP and subsidies like Punjab. All that it has done is made the Punjabi farmer a sarkari employee assured of a regular pay cheque from the same ‘ Dilli darbar’ which he/she despises. The same Dilli darbar’ to which the Sikhs surrendered after the Anglo Sikh wars, defended in 1857 when the rest of North and Central India rebelled.and honoured with a saropa after the massacre of Jalianwala Bagh. So much for defiance. More show then substance like much of Punjab today.

  15. Successful third generation is an exception. If business and political families have not been able to beat the failure a state doing is even more difficult. The entrenched interests are pushing their agenda. Let us see what happens.

  16. No great analysis required on why mostly Punjabi famers agitating against the new farm laws. Free electricity to continuously pump water for unsuitable paddy crop, subsidised seeds, subsidized fertilizers, guaranteed market at guaranteed prices. Cherry on the cake no income tax. Why wouldn’t anyone camp in Singhu or the moon to preserve all this?

    Simple term for this is “vested interests”. If your self interest is vested like this, who gives a toss whether my state is on top or bottom or fallen off on margins. Or the soil has become poisoned through leaching and monoculture of grains, the stubble burning kills people through pollution or the endless MSP buying leads to grain stockpiles way in excess of what is required for “food security” (and lot of that just goes waste….and taxpayers money is required to buy and stockpile.)

    Stray thoughts from Associate Professor, Bharmar University. (Yes, I am teaching at Bharmar!)

    • I don’t understand why the GoI is allowing all that grain to go to waste. Why not give it to the people who need it. Why is India dropping in malnutrition. GoI would rather let grain rot in silos then give it to its citizens who need it ?

      • Probably you don’t. the malnutrition is NOT lack of rice/wheet but because of lack of milk/other nutrients like vitamin deficiencies etc. There is splenty of rick/wheat distributed through PDS. we don’t need more.

  17. For once I appreciate what SG has done. Analyze State of India i.e. Maharashtra. We need such analysis for each state of India. I for one believe India is far more colourful than what our eyes can see and more layered that what we can touch.
    Obsession with Central Govt or Modi does not let us see or touch those colours and layers of India. To me it is armchair journalism and if you are spin doctor them what V K singh rightly said about Indian journalims “presstitutes”.
    We need more granular analysis from all over India and that has to do with states then only we realise the colours and layers of India.
    Will appreciate more such analysis on top 10 states and bottom 10 states of India. This will truly educate Indian citizens than see India as an entity where 2 groups Bhakts and spin doctors.

  18. Reads more like a critique of the movie script than an article that would provoke thinking. A wee bit disappointed, Sir.

  19. For once Guptaji has produced a shaker, and complete article. Right from keeda of going against Delhi durbar to Daljit’s Bollywood. Good work no comments.

  20. Kudos to the author for succinctly putting ground realities and reflection of a society which is resisting to move towards greener pastures.

    Not sure when was the last time I read something this articulated.

    Farmers of the state have a choice to make either be in a constant rut or stand up as they have done across every state, known for their entrepreneurial spirit and success.

    Politics on MSP is lose lose proposition. Instead use this opportunity to dovetail towards challenging time. If green revolution had shown us the success Punjab had, I am pretty sure they will find success again just need course correction.

    I firmly believe the protest will end without any interaction once protestors realize this is not a crisis but an opportunity to prioritize long term gain.

  21. Fukra Punjab?
    That is how it has been for many years now.
    It is the fukra behaviour that has resulted in this major farmers agitation against a series of laws that actually liberates farmers.
    But the stupid leaders of the farmers would not tell the farmers what would benefit them.

  22. Good article shekhar ji but i must object to a few lines. First the mention of aurangazeb is not appropriate. He was a tyrannical king, now we are a union of states under a democratic polity.

    While your prescriptions of discovering entrepreneurial spirit is spot on, i think you expect a little too much in the last paragraph. Look at the demands in the agitation. It is not asking for free competition or even individual economic freedom or liberal land use policy for the farmer or the population in general. The agitation is a full blown anti free-markets , anti corporate (not only the much maligned ambanis adanis) sparing no one. Even walmart stores have suffered a great deal. They want MSP as a legal right for just about anything that looks like a crop. If it were upto them, they’d even undo 1991 reforms. While your prescriptions are right, it has no takers either in Punjab or those who are camping in the borders of delhi. I think we’ll continue to pay heavily for the competitive crony socialism of indian politicians and people who they have convinced that crony socialism is welfare for all.

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