Marginalisation of Punjab


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PUNJAB has been an unusually fluid region, not just geographically but socially and culturally. The boundaries of present day Indian Punjab for example, the region that this paper focuses on, have been redrawn several times over the last few centuries, currently occupying less than 15% of the total geographical area of pre-partition colonial Punjab. A large number of Punjabis, both Sikhs as well as Hindus, live outside the state. A good number of those who migrated from across the border to the Indian side at the time of Partition were resettled in Delhi and other towns of North India.

Over the years, a large number of Punjabis have also migrated out of India, particularly to the countries of the West. Punjabis are among the most influential diasporic communities in some countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America. For example, the proportion of Sikhs in Canada today is approximately the same as in India, constituting nearly two per cent of the total population of the country.

Socially and culturally too Punjab has seen many changes in its profile. Though in popular imagination Indian Punjab is identified with the Sikhs, it was only after its reorganisation in 1966 that Sikhism became a majority religion in the state. In colonial Punjab, Sikhs were a minority and constituted only around 12% of the total population. The Muslims with a population of around 51% formed the majority and the Hindus were around 36%.

Commitment to the ‘native language’ too has not been a passion among the Punjabis. It was not only a section of the Hindus of Punjab who chose to report themselves as speakers of Hindi during the post-independence period, the Muslim Punjabis of Western Punjab (the part that went to Pakistan) too hesitate to identify themselves with their ‘mother tongue’.1 The Punjabi elite of Pakistan, like their counterpart Hindu Punjabis of the Indian Punjab, prefer to identify themselves with Urdu, the national language of their country.

However, despite this fluid and fragmented nature of Punjabi identity, the region has enjoyed a somewhat prominent position in the subcontinent. In the Indian national anthem, of all the provinces mentioned, Punjab’s name comes first. The people of Punjab were also at the forefront of the nationalist freedom struggle. Local leaders, particularly the Sikh Akalis, have often demanded that the Punjab needed to be accorded special treatment because no other region had sacrificed as much for the freedom of the country as had the people of Punjab with martyrs like Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai and massacres like the Jalianwala Bagh. Most importantly, Punjab and Bengal were the only provinces to be partitioned at the time of Independence with millions of Sikhs and Hindus having to cross the newly drawn international border leaving behind virtually all their possessions.



Punjab continued to occupy a distinctive position in the Indian Union during the post-independence period. Being a border state, it was a critical region for independent India. Ever since the British declared Punjab a region of martial communities, the proportion of Sikhs in the national defence forces was much higher than their relative numbers in the Indian population. In popular imagination the Sikhs continue to be viewed as brave soldiers. As mentioned above, the Punjabis are also known to be among the most mobile communities of the subcontinent. They were among the first to go abroad to make their fortunes.

More importantly, however, Punjab, post-independence, acquired prominence for its dynamic and progressive economy, particularly its agriculture. The green revolution, though experienced in other parts of India, was primarily identified with Punjab. At a time when India experienced serious shortages of foodgrains, the success of the green revolution nearly solved the vexing food problem of the entire country.

Though occupying merely 1.6% of the total land area of the country, Punjab produced nearly a quarter of the total foodgrain of the country and contributed to approximately two-third of the entire central pool of foodgrains. In 1980-81, for example, Punjab’s contribution to the central pool of wheat was 73% and of rice 45%. As an offshoot of its success in the agricultural sector, Punjab emerged as the most prosperous state of the country with the highest per capita income. The state had the distinction of having one of the lowest proportions of population living below the poverty line.2 Punjab, indeed, was a success story, a model to be emulated by other states!



The decade of 1980s was a critical period in contemporary Indian history. It was not only Punjab that witnessed a powerful ethnic movement, other parts of the subcontinent too saw the rise of a variety of ‘new social movements’. The questions of gender, human rights, environment and ecology became politically significant during the decade. It was during the 1980s that autonomous dalit movements too came to acquire visibility.

The ‘new’ mobilizations by women, farmers, dalits, tribals and ethnicities not only raised different kinds of demands but questioned the policies and programmes of state-directed development that were being pursued with much enthusiasm in the name of welfare and progress. Coupled with other changes at the global and national levels, the decade of the ’80s saw an overall erosion of the ‘Nehruvian agenda’. As Das puts it: ‘The goals of rational organization of life, the scientific management of society, modernization and development, to which great energies had been devoted in the sixties and early seventies, now seem like signposts to cities that are abandoned and empty’ (Das 1994:1).



While the 1980s were, in a sense, a creative period for Indian society with many fundamental assumptions around which the post-colonial Indian nation was built being questioned, for the Punjab and for the Sikhs it was a traumatic phase. Fifteen long years of militancy and the manner in which the Indian state handled the ‘Punjab crisis’ not only caused bloodshed and suffering, it fundamentally altered the popular image of the region (Jodhka 1997). From a region known for its economic vibrancy and progress, Punjab came to be seen as a ‘crisis ridden state’, a region with serious problems of law and order and political unrest and therefore unsuitable for safe investments.

Nevertheless, despite myriad problems, even during the 1980s, the agrarian economy of Punjab continued to progress. The income of the primary sector of the state economy grew at an average of 5% per annum while the corresponding figure for India as a whole was around 3%.3 The real implications of the crisis were to be felt in the following decade when a new economic philosophy was adopted.

Though, in comparative terms, it continues to be prosperous, in the post-liberalization era Punjab is no longer counted among ‘the happening states’ of India. It is not just that Punjab is not a favoured destination for foreign capital or a centre of the ‘new economy’ currently, it did not receive much investment from the central government for its industrial development during the days of ‘mixed economy’ either. During 1970-71 to 1983-84 Punjab received only 0.92% of investments in the central government’s non-departmental undertakings and the per capita investment in central non-departmental undertakings for Punjab (until 1985) was only Rs 414 (as against Rs 1508 for Maharashtra).4 Similarly, the state was not favoured by the big industrial houses of the country. On the contrary, having accumulated sufficient surplus, the local industrialists opted to go out of the state, particularly during the 1980s.5



Punjab, thus, remains a predominantly agrarian economy. Though in terms of the productivity of land, the agrarian sector of the economy continues to do well, in the changed context, there is little appreciation of the farmers’ capability to produce more food. A bumper crop of paddy or wheat in Punjab is today seen more as a bane than a boon for the national economy. This, even as a large proportion of the Indian population continues to live below the poverty line.

The logic of liberalisation and globalisation demands the withdrawal of the state from the economic sphere and allow the market to take over. While it might be beneficial for industry to freely import the latest technology or function in a competitive atmosphere, leaving the agricultural sector to the vagaries of free market could prove disastrous. Most of the land in India is cultivated by small landholders who are often forced to borrow from various sources for investments in the cultivation of cash crops.



The cycle of agricultural production is such that virtually the entire farm yield comes to the market simultaneously. In a completely free and open market, the indebted small cultivator would obviously find it hard to bargain with the economically more powerful trader.6 The farmers have so far survived because the Indian state offered them a minimum support price, particularly for foodgrains.

The recent experience of Punjabi farmers with the paddy crop is perhaps symptomatic of how Punjab’s agriculture has become ‘a burden’ for food procurement agencies. This despite the fact that the political party in power in the state claims to represent agrarian interests. Although in the previous years too the farmers had found it difficult to sell their crop of paddy and later wheat, and there were reports of distress selling, their plight was particularly pitiable during the current paddy season. It was only when Punjab’s chief minister pleaded with the Indian prime minister to intervene and pressurised the central government to declare a special package for the Punjab farmer that paddy was picked up by central procurement agencies.

The paddy season this year saw a bumper crop, with no natural calamities like untimely rains to damage the produce. But when the crop was brought to the mandis (the marketing centres) the farmers were surprised to find that there were no buyers offering the minimum support price declared by the central government. The officials refused to buy, claiming that the paddy was of inferior quality. The FCI (Food Corporation of India) chief went to the extent of stating that as much as 80% of the paddy was spoilt – a claim that had no scientific basis and, as many farm scientists of the state argued, was simply not true. In fact, FCI officials rarely conducted any tests while rejecting a particular lot of paddy even though they were provided with the kits to carry out such tests.7



Interestingly, traders and rice millers were willing buyers but at a price much lower than the official support price, which would have hardly met the farmers’ costs of production. However, in the given situation, many farmers sold their paddy in distress. The traders paid them Rs 400 to 450 per quintal for the ‘super fine’ variety of paddy as against the official support price of Rs 550 and Rs 350 to 400 per quintal for the ‘common’ variety of paddy as against the official support price of Rs 510.8 The traders sold the same paddy to the official agencies at the minimum support price a few weeks later.



Most farmers, however, chose to wait it out in the mandis, in some cases for over two weeks. The local newspapers during October 2000 were splashed with pictures of farmers sleeping over paddy piled up in the mandis. The grain was everywhere and the mandis overflowed with paddy. It was downloaded wherever the farmers could find room – on roads, in school grounds, in public parks.9 The farmers were perhaps more depressed than angry! As a newspaper report states:

‘Though the farmer’s anger is coming to a boil, his attitude towards the government officials is, surprisingly, the very reverse. With folded hands, he pleads with them to lift his produce, at times virtually falling at their feet to grant him a "remunerative" rate. A telling symbol of the vicelike grip that the market binds him in.’10

Farmers were at the mercy of officials! ‘It is blood and toil for six months and we cannot afford to annoy the officials. The money we earn during these days will provide for our family during the next six months as well as help us purchase fertilisers for the forthcoming wheat crop,’ a farmer in the Khanna mandi, Asia’s biggest grain market, told Bajinder Pal Singh, a reporter. However, not all of them could wait or bear the humiliation. There were several front page reports in local newspapers of small and marginal farmers taking the extreme step of committing suicide out of frustration and humiliation.

Its long-term implications apart, the processes of globalisation and liberalisation have made agriculture an unattractive proposition. Even in a state like Punjab where agriculture is not merely a vocation but an identity that its practitioners are proud of, it seems to be losing its charm. While the farmers of Punjab have maintained a steady growth in the productivity of traditional crops, there have been no significant investments to help the farmer diversify into other crops and economic activity. As a consequence, the once powerful farming community of the state appears to have become a vulnerable category.



The Punjab farmer, once celebrated by the nation for his hard work and skilful agriculture, and who had solved the colossal food crisis of the country, is now at the mercy of the bureaucracy. This change in the popular image of the Punjab farmer was well summed up by a newspaper reporter during the paddy crisis: ‘Not so long ago they were the pride of India, the archetypal sardar farmer featuring as the central character in every government advertisement for the nation’s progress and prosperity. Today they are a dispirited lot, done in, they believe, by the bungling of all officialdom: government, government agencies, anyone in authority.’11

The farmers of Punjab do not see this as an isolated case of bureaucratic mismanagement or the occasional case of overproduction. They are realising that the pride that the vocation of agriculture offered them till recently is fast disappearing. As one of them reportedly commented to a newspaper reporter, ‘The government gave the slogan of "Jai Jawan Jai Kisan" during the wars, when the whole nation was in crisis. Now they have insulted the farming community by exploiting us.’12 Another statement by ‘leading farm experts and progressive farmers’ of the Amritsar district criticised the FCI chief for his negative remarks on quality of the Punjab paddy. Such remarks, according to them, were ‘an insult to the farmers of the state keeping in view their record and contribution to the national food sector during the past four decades.’13



The ‘crises’ that contemporary Punjab faces is not confined to agriculture alone. The decade of the 1980s had far reaching implications for the state’s economy and society.

After 15 long years of turmoil, the militant movement came to end without achieving anything for the people of Punjab. While none of the outstanding issues concerning the state – the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, the dispute over the river water distribution – were resolved, the losses suffered by Punjab during the 1980s were huge. During the days of the ‘crisis’, the entire resources of the state were mobilised to counter militancy and hardly any development projects were taken up. In fact, even after the decline of militancy, the state government had to maintain a massive police force that had been raised to counter the militancy.

Many of the loans taken by the state from the central government during the last two decades were not for any developmental work but for meeting the salaries of government employees. Once the Akalis, in alliance with the BJP, came to power in the state some of these loans were waived by the central government. Yet the regular expenditure on the payment of salaries only went up. It was partly for this reason that the financial crisis created by the Fifth Pay Commission was felt more in Punjab than in other states of the country.

Evidently, the continuing financial crunch has a direct bearing on the developmental process, since even after the end of the militancy, the state government has little money to invest in developmental projects. As a result, the state is currently witnessing a serious collapse of public institutions. Perhaps the most serious has been the collapse of school education, a situation particularly depressing in village schools. The number of teachers employed is normally lower than those required. Even those employed do not take their work seriously. Rarely do rural schools have sufficient infrastructure in terms of rooms, labs and furniture required for proper functioning. Since the schools are run by the state government, local panchayats have little say in their functioning. While the better-off sections of the village can send their children to urban schools, a large majority of rural children have no choice but to access local schools.14



The economic development experienced during the green revolution brought villages closer to the cities – in terms of lifestyle and aspirations. Thus, the well-off sections of rural Punjab not only began to send their children to the towns, but many of them also acquired a middle class life-style (Jodhka 1999). However, with the growing crisis of agriculture and the near collapse of rural education, the gap between the village and city seems to be widening again for the less privileged and poor. In an informal conversation, two teachers of the Economics Department at the Punjabi University, Patiala, told me that they had noticed a significant decline in the number of rural students in the university, particularly in their department, during the last couple of years.

The two main avenues of employment outside agriculture that were conventionally popular among the Punjab youth were the armed forces or migration to the West. However, the government withdrew the preferential treatment enjoyed by the Sikhs in recruitment to armed forces during the colonial period, thereby considerably shrinking employment avenues.



Migration to the West continues to be a passion among the rural Punjabi youth, particularly in the districts of the doaba (Jallandhar, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala). Though most western countries have imposed restrictions on open migrations, the migratory flow continues apace. Apart from getting there in the name of family union, many use ‘illegal’ means to reach western shores. Though a large chunk of these are from the dominant caste of Jats, the number of ‘lower’ castes going abroad has increased (Mehta 1990). However, using illegal means involves spending huge sums of money, which is often swindled by disingenuous middlemen.

It may seem bizarre to talk about the marginalisation of Punjab at a time when Punjabi culture – music, Bhangra, food and Punjabi dress – has made inroads virtually across the entire country. Even in interior Kerala and Andhra Pradesh one sees young women in Punjabi dress and the young enjoying the music of Daler Mehndi. The Punjabi dhabas too have become an all-India phenomenon.

Punjab continues to rank among the top five states of India in terms of economic indicators such as per-capita income. Only Goa and Delhi rank higher. The state has an insignificant proportion of population living below the poverty line. Over the last four years of Akali rule, Punjab and the Sikhs have surely recovered from the traumatic and violent experiences of the 1980s.

Nevertheless, Punjab today is not seen as a model state, primarily because of the weakness of its economy. With the green revolution petering out, the state has not experienced any vibrant industrial growth barring a few pockets. The annual economic growth rate of Punjab during the post-liberalization era has been one of the lowest in the country. As per available estimates, the annual growth rate of Punjab during the period 1991-92 to 1997-98 was only 2.80%. The corresponding figures for Gujarat (7.57), Maharashtra (6.13) and even West Bengal (5.04) were much higher (Ahluwalia 2000:1638).



With the spread of green revolution to other regions of the country, the rest of India no longer depends on foodgrains from Punjab as it did 20 years back. While stocks of foodgrains in Punjab have been piling up in the local godowns, the contribution of Punjab to the central pool has declined. The percentage share of Punjab to the central pool of rice came down from 45.3% in 1980-81 to 39.1% in 1998-99 and of wheat from 73% to 48.6% during the same period.15

Despite talk about diversification of Punjab agriculture and a change in the cropping pattern, there has virtually been no attempt at building infrastructure and a marketing network to facilitate this shift to more remunerative cash crops. Such an initiative should have come from the state. One can imagine that the market or multinational companies might at some stage be willing to take such an initiative, but as of now there seems to be no prospect of this happening. Apart from this economic stalemate, Punjab faces political crisis, particularly in the governance of Sikh religious institutions.



The Akali victory in the 1997 state Assembly elections appeared to be an important turning point for Punjab and the Sikhs. The Akalis not only aligned with the BJP, a Hindu communal party, but also took a moderate position on the question of Sikh identity. Instead of appealing to the communal sentiments of the Sikh panth, the Akalis projected themselves as representatives of all Punjabis. Even on the question of community politics, their approach has been non-partisan.

This was best reflected in the manner in which they conducted the tercentenary celebrations of the formation of the Khalsa in April 1999. A large number of Punjabis visited the town of Anandpur Sahib and the state government invited dignitaries from all parts of the world and belonging to all communities. The celebrations also received extensive and positive coverage in the regional and national media. Apart from restoring a sense of confidence among the Sikh masses in Punjab and outside, the tercentenary celebrations also made the question of identity less significant for the Sikh community (Jodhka 2000).

With the decline of identity politics, questions of governance and welfare have begun to be matter once again. However, on this count the Akalis have not been able to deliver.

Besides representing the Sikh community and the region, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) also represents certain specific class and caste interests. Most Akalis come from the landowning, dominant sections of the farming caste of Jats. And it is from this constituency that they get most of their votes. Agrarian interests have always remained their main preoccupation. Despite widespread criticism, SAD continues with the policy of providing free electricity to farmers. They may know their politics well, but what they do not seem to know is how to respond to the emerging realities of a fast changing world.




1. Though this point is frequently made in the writings on Punjab, by 1981 a majority of the Punjabi Hindus had once again started reporting themselves as Punjabi speakers. The proportion of Punjabi speakers as per the 1981 Census was 84.9% (cf Krishan 1998).

2. According to the Planning Commission estimates only 11.77% of the state population lived in a state of absolute poverty in the year 1993-94. The corresponding figure for the country as a whole was 35.97% (Ahluwalia 2000: 1640).

3. During the 1980s income of the secondary sector of the Punjab economy grew at the rate of 7% per annum as against the all India average of 6.1% (Gill and Ghuman 2000: 450).

4. P. Singh, 1992, 64.

5. However, despite all these factors, Punjab could not be said to be an industrially backward state. The state enjoys a leading position in the manufacturing of sports goods, hosiery, surgical instruments and cycle parts in the entire country. The proportion of urban population in Punjab is also more than that of the country as a whole. According to the 1991 census, the proportion of urban population in Punjab was 29.6% as against the national average of 26.1%. The share of secondary sector in the state economy has also been growing, though at slower pace compared to many other states. However, much of the industry in Punjab is medium and small scale and of native origin. It does not offer attractive avenues for employment to the upwardly mobile rural youth. A large proportion of the labour employed in these industries is made up of migrants from other states.

6. There have been several reports on the growing indebtedness of the Punjab farmers, particularly of small and marginal farmers. Their sources for credit are invariably informal, generally the arhtias (commission agent) in the grain market, which obviously makes their bargaining position weak. See Shergill 1998; Bose 2000.

7. Hari Jaisingh, 2000.

8. Lalit Mohan, The Tribune, 10 October 2000.

9. Bajinder Pal Singh, The Indian Express, 5 October 2000.

10. Bajinder Pal Singh, The Indian Express, 6 October 2000.

11. Vikram Jit Singh, The Indian Express, 14 October 2000.

12. The Tribune, 15 October 2000.

13. The Tribune, 7 October 2000.

14. One can notice the mushrooming of private schools in some parts of the Punjab. Most of these are nursery schools; their distinction is that they teach in ‘English’, whatever that may mean. They obviously cannot provide an alternative to school education as such.

15. Statistical Abstract, Punjab 1999, p. 232.



Ahluwalia, M.S. ‘Economic Performance of States in the Post-Reforms Period’, Economic and Political Weekly 35(19), 6 May 2000, 1637-48.

Bose, A. ‘From Population to Pests in Punjab: American Boll Worm and Suicides in Cotton Belt’, Economic and Political Weekly 35(38), 2000, 3375-77.

Das, V. (ed.) Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gill, S.S. and R.S. Ghuman. ‘Crisis of Punjab Economy: The Alternative Options and the Role of the Government’, in R.S. Bawa and P.S. Raikhy (ed.), Punjab Economy: Emerging Issues. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 2000, 437-58.

Government of Punjab. Statistical Abstract of Punjab 1999. Chandigarh: Economic and Statistical Organisation, 1999.

Jaisingh, H. ‘Growing Frustration of the Kisan: Agriculture Needs Fresh Strategy’, The Tribune, Chandigarh, 11 October 2000.

Jodhka, S.S. ‘Crisis of the 1980s and Changing Agenda of "Punjab Studies": A Survey of Some Recent Research’ (Review Article), Economic and Political Weekly 32(6), 8 February 1997, 273-79.

‘Return of the Middle Class’, Seminar (476), April 1999, 21-25.

‘Punjab: Decline of Identity Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly 35(11), 11-17 March 2000, 880-82.

Krishan, G. ‘Urbanization since Independence’, in J. S. Grewal and Indu Banga (ed.), Punjab in Prosperity and Violence. Chandigarh: Institute of Punjab Studies, 1998, 177-86.

Mehta, S. Migration: A Spatial Perspective (A Case Study of Bist Doab-Punjab). Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1990.

Singh, P. ‘Punjab’s Economic Development and the Current Crisis’, Seminar (401), 1993, 60-5.

Shergill, H.S. Rural Credit and Indebtedness in Punjab. Chandigarh: Institute of Development and Communication, 1998.