Prosperous Punjab now lags; time for planners to act

Manish Tiwari | Chandigarh

Decision makers need to be conscious that while some states are growing fast, Punjab is losing out in the race. We have to win today, but tomorrow is also important. So, the short-term policies should not become so over-arching that Punjab loses sight of the long-term objectives.

My recent visit to South India has been an eye opener for me in many ways. As I travelled through the region criss-crossing some of the important cities, such as Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad last week, I was amazed to see the level of development, roads infrastructure, buildings and big factories along the National Highways.
Some of these cities look much more vibrant than those in the North. This compelled me to think that the world has grown far beyond the present day Punjab, and that this is the right time for policy makers, politicians and the bureaucracy to sit back and take note of this development and do something, lest from “a North-South divide, it becomes a South-North divide”.
An early start had put Punjab way ahead of other states on many fronts, helping this border State to surpass others on various social indicators but this was so only till the early 1990s. In the past three decades, complacency, particularly after defeating terrorism, seems to have crept in. This complacency now appears to be a much bigger villain which, many believe, has permeated into the mind-set of the political class across party lines and in the bureaucracy as well. As a result, some Southern states are way ahead on a variety of indicators while Punjab has lagged much behind in this race of development.
For me, the issue is about the future and the present, leaving the past behind. Figures show that Punjab is at par with Tamil Nadu on health indicators as the state was ranked number-2 on this indicator by the Niti Ayog. The quality of education, however, requires a major thrust.
Needless to say, in terms of services, IT and infrastructure, and the permeation of IT into governance, the North has traditionally been weaker than the South.
In the past few years, however, the Punjab government has given impetus to help develop institutions of learning around Mohali, so that this city could grow into the “Boston of Asia”. Mohali has an International airport and big institutions such as the Indian School of Business (ISB), National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER), Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) and a biotechnology institute, and can easily become a hub of higher education — north of Delhi. With many other institutions, including the Government Medical College, Ashoka University and Amity University coming up in Mohali, the city could soon emerge as a favourite educational hub destination. It also has the potential of becoming an important medical tourism destination for people from the Middle East, Central Asia, catering to their middle to higher middle-level healthcare needs.
On the other hand, despite serious efforts in the past to woo IT companies, Punjab has not made a major headway in this area so far. Even today, the Southern states continue to enjoy complete hold over this sector as traditionally, these states have had greater access to English as compared to the North and science education has always been a thrust area in the South. The proliferation of private engineering colleges in the 1980s and the 90s in the South has already helped create a reservoir of quality technical manpower. In South, land is cheaper than Punjab while the governments in those states have been known to directly allot land to companies at cheaper rates without attracting any major controversy.
The Punjab government will also have to create a system which is reasonably well-accepted and tested and stands the scrutiny of any kind of inquiry.
Due to their proximity with ports and other enabling conditions, there has been big investment by mega industries, including car manufacturers in the 50-60 km radius of important cities such as Chennai. These investments have resulted in creation of excellent road networks and infrastructure and as a result, the South looks much more developed and prosperous.
Punjab is the other frontier, so the game is different here.
Punjab can, nonetheless, focus on developing its tourism potential, such as Patiala, Kapurthala, Harike, and also promote religious darshans, besides the iconic Golden Temple in Amritsar. One wonders why the Punjab government has not made Amritsar an iconic city of the country.
After my 10-day visit to the South, I felt that decision makers in Punjab will have to open their mind and be conscious that the State which was the leader in some fields at one time has lagged in the race in the last 30 years. And with every parting month and year, there is yawning disparity.
People of Punjab are fortunate that Punjabi farmers continue to contribute over Rs 1,00,000 crore every year to the State’s economy despite tremendous financial stress on them, creating a decent living in the State. However, as long as the politicians and the bureaucracy do not accept that there is a problem, the state will not go too far with the rising agrarian crisis.
Their “dismissive attitude” could largely be on account of the head start that Punjab traditionally had for the past 100 years over the rest of India. With the Green Revolution, Punjab’s economy improved because of better irrigation and the State’s ability to grow and sell wheat and paddy, while the recruitment of Punjabi youth into the Army in large numbers and certain other factors contributed significantly to the prosperity of the State.
The beginning was so good that despite militancy taking roots in Punjab, the State kept growing at a faster pace than the rest of India till 1991. The paradigm shift happened after the early 1990s, when India kept growing even as Punjab’s growth continued to be consistently lower than the country’s growth figures.
In Punjab’s context, the issue of development and growth needs to be looked at in a broader perspective. While we have to win today, tomorrow is equally important. So, the short-term policies should not become so over-arching that Punjab completely loses sight of the long-term objectives.
It’s high time the politicians and the bureaucrats understood where the malady lies and planned on a long-term basis — say where should Punjab be in the year 2030; what should be the complexion of its economy, what kind of financial indicators should there be etc. etc. The short-term competitive politics will only bring about development on a piecemeal basis that Punjab can ill-afford.

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