If you are a Punjabi you might find this biting piece from Shekhar Gupta to be a painful read. If hail from any other part of India, you are likely to find this piece to be a cautionary tale because it describes how in the space of a generation a state can go from being the most prosperous in the country to becoming one of the poorest states in India. Here is Shekhar’s description of Punjab’s economic decline: “That Punjab is the richest state in India is a story out of date by about 20 years. In the years since, it has now slipped to, hold your breath, 15th among full-fledged states.
In fact, 19th if you also add union territories. Big states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana and Gujarat are all way ahead of it. In fact, if you go purely by the parameter of nominal per capita income, even Arunachal Pradesh beats it. At number 19, Punjab is the last in the list of states above the national per capita income average.
West Bengal brings up the lagging half, at number 20, just below Punjab. And who knows, it might some day catch up with Punjab. How unflattering it would be for the Punjabi ego, and how shattering for our old stereotypes to be told that Punjabis are poorer than “Madrasis and Bengalis”.”
So how did this happen? Shekhar focuses on two factors – a failure to modernise agriculture and a socially regressive attitude to education and women. Focusing on the first aspect he says: “As other progressive agricultural states, Madhya Pradesh in particular, learnt modern farming and ran up the ladder (the state now contributes more wheat to the national pool than any other), Punjab stagnated. The spectacle they built around Delhi during the farm protests was vibrant, colourful and heady. But one reason so many landowners among them could be there is that they had bhaiyyas minding their fields back home. And their adult children were, meanwhile, busying themselves putting together desperate jugaad to escape overseas, mostly illegally and rarely with committed employment. It’s a quaint phenomenon. I import millions of migrant labourers from the Hindi heartland to work my fields. Meanwhile, my children are all running hell for leather to Canada and often as illegals via Europe.”
Shekhar then explains how how medieval attitudes towards women and a disdain for education has created economic and cultural challenges for Punjabi men: “…I’d suggest you go to Amazon Prime and watch a full-length Punjabi feature film titled Jatt Versus IELTS. This IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a very basic examination of English reading, writing and speaking that is the first requirement for a visa to Canada and other such dream destinations. Every year, lakhs of young Punjabis take this exam, and most flunk. In the film, the hero who does nothing except show off on his daddy’s motorbike, routinely orders his mother to fetch him a glass of water, often gets drunk and has only one dream: To crack IELTS and reach Canada so, as his true-believing mother puts it, her son will ‘play in dollars’. It is just that in this battle of Jatt-versus-IELTS, the acronym keeps winning.
Finally, desperate parents find for their wastrel son a bride who’s already cracked IELTS. That’s the sole qualification. And in any case, the dude isn’t interested in her, not even on his ‘suhaag raat’. He just wants her to go to Canada, and call him on a spouse visa. She goes there for sure, and forgets all about the waiting husband. That is the abandoned husband we are talking about. Punjab now has so many of them that associations are being formed to fight for their rights, lawyers and policemen are thinking up contracts with liabilities, just in case the wife does not call in the husband. And all this while we thought it was husbands who abandoned wives.”
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