Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Rediscovery of Punjab (from Tehelka)

Alarmed by a report on the decline of Punjab, one man walked 45 days, over 1,200 kilometres across 21 districts, to learn the truth

Source: Tehelka


UNTIL OCTOBER 2010, much of Punjab didn’t know what was happening with Punjab. It still doesn’t. But a story was told then (TEHELKA Cover, Punjab: Rich and Ruined, 2 October 2010), that has begun to alter the way the people of Punjab look at themselves. The heat and noise of impropriety in the country, what the Prime Minister calls the air of despondency and cynicism, has obscured the decay of Punjab, once India’s proudest and most dynamic state. We put it on the table. That Punjab is a generation away from possible extinction because of drugs, alcohol, pesticides in farms, and a culture of denial.

The responses varied. The government, led by the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine, opted to look the other way. The intelligentsia was most perturbed. Some people were upset, they thought only one side of Punjab was talked about. But most ordinary folk were happy that at last the truth of Punjab was told. One man went into deep thought.

Ravneet Singh is a young Congress hope, grandson of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was assassinated in office in 1995. Ravneet is also the first Congressman in recent times to have won an open inner-party election, in the Punjab Youth Congress (PYC). As President of the PYC, it is Singh’s job to make a difference to the youth of his state. Ravneet says he was alarmed by the scale of the destruction in Punjab, as the TEHELKA story demonstrated. “We were looking for ways to connect with the youth. The story showed us how to,” says Ravneet.

In Punjab the Congress tends to be wary of going to the people, because of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in parts of north India. In the past 15 years, not many Congress politicians have reached out though the party has headed governments in the state. Ravneet decided it was time to. By the time he was through, his feet, legs and body were sore and his toes needed to be separated by a doctor.

This is his story, in his words.


'It will take 15 years of social revolution for Punjab to recover’


FOR A while now, we have been aware that there is a problem in Punjab. But, we were not sure what precisely we, in the Punjab Youth Congress, should do about it. We held a meeting the day after the TEHELKA story on the deterioration of Punjab appeared. On one hand was the TEHELKA story that triggered much thought in us. On the other hand was Rahul Gandhi’s repeated caution that we must not earn discredit by doing anything half-hearted. So we pondered long and hard. We decided we needed to go to the people first and understand why the situation in Punjab has turned so grave. We didn’t want to talk of religion or votes, which seem to put people off, especially the youngsters. We needed a new revolution. So we called it the New Revolution Padayatra. I, as president of the Punjab Youth Congress, would walk 1,200 km in 45 days across Punjab. The padayatra began on 1 November and concluded on 15 December at Ludhiana. We chose two main themes: drug addiction and female foeticide.

My frist shock was in a village called Channo in Fatehgarh district. We were there on Diwali night. Channo is not a very rich village. In fact, I learned many things about Punjab. The general perception is that Punjab is among the richest states in India, but I found deep-rooted widespread poverty in the state, especially its interiors. In Channo, we found a group of farmers were sitting idle in the mandi. There was too much moisture in their produce this year because of the heavy rains and no one was buying. In any case they had a poor harvest. We offered candles and a few firecrackers, which we had brought with us to distribute. The women were all at home. Not celebrating, just sitting and talking. The men were lying around in a group, mostly drunk. The youngsters were in another group, playing cards and high on smack. This was Fatehgarh, not Amritsar, and they were still heavily addicted.

When we reached Bhatinda, we found 50 to 60 cancer patients in almost every village. Everyone wither had cancer or hepatitis. My aunt had hepatitis so I know how bad it can get. At least two chief minister’s families have cancer patients but the administration is still not sensitised enough. The people in the villages here had accepted illness as their fate. Most of it comes from the polluted water and air. During my yatra I found that you can’t drink natural water in Punjab now. Everything comes from RO filters. All villages have an RO plant to escape the brackish water. The RO plants need frequent maintenance so the villagers suffer anyway. I also found women picking cotton for as little as Rs. 60 a day when even MGNREGA wages are about Rs. 100. This is Punjab.

In the beginning, people seemed wary of us. They probably thought we had come to seek votes. But slowly, by the time we neared Amritsar, they began to join us. Women came out in large numbers and said they would join us in the fight against drugs. The main issue in Punjab is drugs. It has got tricky because the traditional drugs like opium and smack are not so heavily abused now. They are still there but it is the pharmaceutical drugs that are causing havoc. Synthetic drugs have taken over. Everywhere in Punjab we saw medical shops. In every village, even where there are only 1,000 people, they had four medical shops mostly operating without licence.
Ground reality Ravneet’s fact-finding mission focussed on two main themes: female foeticide and drug addiction that has ravaged the state
Ground reality Ravneet’s fact-finding mission focussed on two main themes: female foeticide and drug addiction that has ravaged the state

Ground reality Ravneet’s fact-finding mission focussed on two main themes: female foeticide and drug addiction that has ravaged the state

We would start early every day for the yatra. And we saw the same sight each morning. The markets across the state open at 10 am. But two things start early in Punjab: medical shops and liquor vends. I saw them open even at 6 am with the staff sprinkling water, cleaning the place and getting it ready like one would do for a flower shop. I checked at nearly 30 places. There is a queue of people every morning at medical stores. If they can’t get their supply of drugs at that point, they buy alcohol at a nearby vend and drink for a couple of hours until their supply arrives. When we would walk past schools and colleges, we saw the same thing done a little differently. At some places, policemen in vehicles would be keeping an eye on the medical shops. So, the staff would stock their stuff in a car and settle down at eateries near schools and colleges. Small kiosks that are called canteens. No one bothers them there and the trade flourishes.

Punjab has been a bright star for India, which is now in a state of ruin. This is not apparent until you go to the interiors. I see no ray of hope for Punjab as things stand and this is should be a big worry for Punjab and India. Even a single example will show how bad things are. Sometime in early December, the army held a camp near Ludhiana to enlist soldiers.

Traditionally, Punjab used to have the maximum number of soldiers in the Indian Army. In this exercise, the army was hiring for 18,000 vacancies. Only 1,924 were selected from Punjab. Youngsters were rejected because some didn’t have the necessary height, others didn’t have the chest, and still others didn’t have the stamina. Today, Punjab is so unfit. Seventy percent of the youth is on drugs and 40 percent couples are unable to conceive because of drugs.

In my yatra, I realised that a big change is needed to save Punjab. It must start with us politicians, though it cannot be limited only to the government and political parties. We found at many places people were reluctant to come out and join the yatra openly. They said they were with us but didn’t dare to say so or show it openly. They were afraid of the police, who were keeping an eye on the yatra, zooming in and out, hovering around us all the time. This is a symptom of the political culture in Punjab. When governments are formed, political parties tend to target opponents rather than focus on development. This breeds a desire for revenge and when the other side comes to power, they do the same thing. Some activists said there were 60 FIRs against them.

THIS MUST change. The time for petty power politics is over in Punjab. All parties must come together to run a mass movement to rescue Punjab. Even then, it would take 15 years of social revolution for Punjab to recover. Our New Revolution will not stop with the padayatra. In a couple of months, we would host a big seminar where we hope to come out with a Punjab Revival Policy. But that alone is not enough. We must all decide, whichever party we are from, not to give drug dealers tickets in the next election. The Election Commission must keep a strict watch so that drugs are not given for votes.

Only two things open early in Punjab: liquor vends and pharmacies. You can see queues of addicts from dawn

I saw that people have awakened a little because of the yatra. Some may have begun to think as well. There was a youngster who came rushing to me as I was leaving Patiala. He had read our pamphlet and asked if we were helping people get off drugs. He said he was a smack addict and was fed up. He wanted to give up but didn’t know what to do. He was ostracised as an addict in his village. I told him we couldn’t get people off drugs. We were only telling them drugs were bad.

This brings me to another problem in Punjab. There are no decent deaddiction centres in the state. There are a few local ones, where they beat up patients. Families get fed up and leave the addicts in these places. They get no proper treatment. There is no dignity and they don’t know what to do once they are off drugs. I know NRIs who spend up to Rs. 5 lakh on kabaddi tournaments in their villages. It would be so much better if they helped set up good rehab centres for addicts. I tell the NRIs I know but I hope others reading this would come forward to help.

The time for petty politics is over. All parties must unite to run a mass movement to save Punjab

My focus is not on the ones already addicted. I want to intervene and stop the next generation from becoming addicted. Every third house has an addict. Punjab has nothing to give the next generation. Its land has gone to the colonisers. Most people have sold their land. Now, even migration to the West has slowed. This would cause a great problem over the next 15 years. People in other states are happy with basic things like good roads. In Punjab, they compare themselves with Canada. They want big lives. They won’t do small work. The big work isn’t there because industry is moving out to other states. So, I see more people getting into drugs in the coming years. Big decisions have to be taken. 2011 will be a bad year for Punjab. The Akali government will not be interested in the state because elections are due in 14 months. They will look at an exit strategy.

The Congress has to carefully scrutinise its people and pick only those of integrity. The padayatra has definitely sensitised me and the members of the Punjab Youth Congress about the expectations of the people from the political leadership. What is worrying me is that we found a majority of the people fed up with the present system. They are silent. Their silence is bothering me now.

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