What is the PROBLEM in Punjab

  • Punjab has two major problems. Intertwining of religion and politics. Over-exploitation of groundwater. Unless resolved, Punjab has a bleak future. Resistance to accept the reality and change has led to the present situation.

Punjab is in the news again. Farmer’s agitation, Appointment of cricketer Sidhu as PCC Chief, alleged humiliation of former Chief Minister Singh, appointment of Dalit CM Channi and now Sidhu’s resignation.


The problem with those in public life is not knowing when to call it quits. Rare is the Sunil Gavaskar who quit when at the top. Most are like Kapil Dev (overstayed in order to reach Hadlee’s record.)


After becoming Congress’s tallest leader in Punjab and admired for his nationalist views, Amarinder Singh could have chosen to make way for the next generation. That is what succession planning is all about. The Congress High Command should have managed the changeover.  


It is now a clash of egos. Actually, it is a jostling for power. Sidhu wants to have a say in every appointment and believes control over the party and government are essential if he has to deliver victory in 2022. His moves could also be a ploy to keep fellow Jat Sikhs happy because power is seen as passing on to a Non-Jat.


Actually, the problems in Punjab go much deeper and are two.


One, is the intertwining of religion with politics. Two, falling ground water levels, due to increasing paddy production, threaten Punjab’s prosperity.


The intertwining of religion and politics concerns Jat Sikhs. They got prominence with the advent of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule and victories against the Afghans. Further, the British were grateful to the Sikh princes for assistance received during the mutiny of 1857 and seeing the bravery of Sikh armies realised, that they could be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India.


Thereafter, British wooed Sikhs, made caste the basis of land ownership and tacitly supported the division of Punjab into Sikh and Hindu. Also read How the British Divided Punjab into Hindu and Sikh

The Akalis entered into a dispute with the British for the control of Sikh gurudwaras. In 1925, the Sikh Gurudwaras Act was passed which gave Sikhs (primarily Jaat Sikhs) control over all the Gurudwaras in undivided Punjab. By virtue of its control over gurudwara affairs and revenue, Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) became an important body.  The Akalis are yet to relinquish control since 1925. 


Thereafter, control of Sikh religious affairs is key to political power in Punjab. “It is often said in Punjab, one who controls the gurdwaras, rules the state.” Source


On becoming chief minister in 1972, Zail Singh tried hard to wrest control of the SGPC and used every opportunity to placate Sikh religious sentiments and assert Sikh identity. In order to regain the initiative, the Akali Dal Working Committee passed the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973.


Since then this pattern of politics, competitive communalism and brinkmanship, has been the hallmark of Punjab.  


Captain Singh too tried to gain a foothold in Sikh religious affairs by using the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor but failed. Also read Captain’s gameplan on Kartarpur Corridor

India must focus on Traditional Varieties of Rice. Cr Bio-Basics. 

Thus, the Jat Sikh community became powerful by virtue of being land owners-farmers (aided by the Green Revolution) and control over Sikh religious affairs.


Until religion and politics are delinked, Punjabi society and politics will be unstable.


Actually, this mixing of politics and religion was started by Guru Har Govind (1606 to 1644), after the martyrdom of his father Guru Arjun, who hung two swords by his side signifying Piri and Miri, one symbolised the spiritual power and the other temporal (political). The concept of spiritual and temporal power worked very well when the Mughals ruled but in Independent India!


A related issue is the SGPC trying to distance modern day Sikhism from its Hindu roots. They are quiet about Sikh conversions to Christianity but protest vehemently when told of their origin in Sanatana Dharma. Also read Is modern day Sikhism a colonial construct?


Perhaps if Sikhism came closer to Hinduism, Sikhs would be considered the majority community in Punjab (stated by the Punjab High Court but appeal pending in Supreme Court.) Then SGPC schools would be unable to avail of constitutional benefits given to minority schools.


I hold nothing against my Punjabi Jat Sikh brothers and sisters but some things need to be told.


Since farmers are predominantly Jat Sikh and the community powerful successive governments have wooed them with sops for e.g. Akali-BJP government declared free power to farmers in 1997-98. In FY20-21, free power is expected to cost Rs 8,275 crore leaving fewer resources for needy programs in an agrarian state.


Free power has hurt Punjab’s agriculture, depleted water resources by encouraging paddy cultivation, added to farmers’ production cost by forcing the installation of submersible pumps and curtailed industrial activity during the paddy season.

Using ground-water in Punjab. 

According to a 2017 article in Tribune, Agricultural scientist SS Johl and veteran I M Singh, “Environmental damage is incalculable as rice crop is the major contributor to pollution of aquifers and damage to the ecosystem.”

It takes more than three times the water to grow paddy in Punjab compared to the flooded plains of Bihar or West Bengal. Yet!

Today “Punjab comes in the category of water-stressed states, with 105 of 138 blocks being categorised in the dark zone” and "about 3 million acres are cultivated for paddy in Punjab and 20 million tonnes of stubble are generated every year, said Jasbir Singh Bains, the state's director of agriculture in 2017.” 


Farmers should know that Punjab will be rendered a desert within 25 years if the exploitation of its underground water resources continues at the current rate, according to a draft report of the Central Ground Water Board (North-Western region).


Free power and guaranteed procurement of paddy by the Food Corporation of India at MSP have promoted paddy cultivation in Punjab and discouraged cross diversification.


As a result, the area under paddy grew by 30% between 1990-91 and 2000-01, and 51% between 1990-91 and 2016-17 (E).


We Punjabis are not rice eaters. Rajma and Kadhi Chawal are two favourites, period. But, was Punjab always a rice producer?

Area under Paddy in Punjab


Area‘000 hectare

1. 1960-61


2. 1970-71


3. 1980-81


4. 1990-91


5. 2000-01

2611 Free Power

6. 2010-11


7. 2016-17 (E)



In 1961, the area under paddy was only 2.27 lakh hectares against 30.46 in 2016-17. Earlier farmers cultivated bajra, sugarcane, jowar etc. Actually till “about hundred years ago, rice was grown largely in eastern and southern India, where rainfall was high and water plentiful.” The Green Revolution changed that.

Jat Sikh farmers showed great resolve, willingness to change and entrepreneurship in adopting to new technology and increased production of rice and wheat significantly. But that was in the 1960’s.

It is to offer price security and perhaps out of gratitude that the government of India is buying rice and wheat at MSP inspite of its godowns being full. Further, procurement is also skewed in favour of Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, which accounted for 54% of the total rice procured by FCI in 2017-18, with Punjab accounting for 32.7% of the 36.18 million metric tonnes procured.

This love for selling at MSP means zero risk on price. MSP has encouraged Punjab farmers to grow cotton and sugar-cane (a water guzzler). Pesticides are mainly used by farmers who grow rice and cotton.   

Drip Irrigation in Kutch. Not popular in Punjab.  

The cause of Punjab problems are over-exploitation of groundwater, over-use of pesticides, intensive farming and a damaged ecosystem. Fifty plus years of MSP have created vested interests that want status-quo.

Actually, depleting water levels and cancer cases (Cancer Train) is what farmers and politicians should be talking about. But, it is all about Elections 2022.

Further, vested interests are opposing transparency for e.g. Farmer unions are objecting to the Centre’s directive to state government to upload land records on the portal so that name of land owner and seller of produce can be matched. This way name of actual owner will be known. That is perhaps what the unions do not want the Centre to know.

Somewhere Punjabi farmers have lost their entrepreneurial spirit. I remember meeting Didar Singh Bains, known as Peach King of California, who spoke of his challenging journey. He uses drip-irrigation in water starved Yuba City area, something that not many Punjabi farmers do.

Micro-irrigation on D S Bains farm, Yuba City, USA.

Solutions are known. Noted agricultural economist Ashok Gulati recently wrote, “Wisdom lies in investing more in animal husbandry (including fisheries) and fruit & vegetables” but these offer no assured returns.

Wish the Apex Court decides on the legality of the farm bills, makes public report of farm panel it appointed and lets the government govern.


Also read by late Sunil Jain This is about politics, not farmer rights  


Unless Punjab separates religion from politics and reduces area under paddy cultivation, no Chief Minister can save Punjab. 


Punjab needs a leader who thinks beyond vote-bank politics and stops farmer appeasement whilst addressing genuine concerns. If Punjab fails, it would be a sad day for Punjabis worldwide, a community that successfully rebuilt its life post Partition.


Also read

1. Make every drop of water count for sustainable agriculture

2. Make the most of Supreme Court’s farm panel

3. How poor land records add to farm frustration

4. Rationalise Power subsidy in Punjab – Montek Panel

5. Downside of Punjab style – Fertiliser based farming

6. Traditional varieties of Rice

7. What is the real problem in Punjab

8. Why Punjab is angry

9. Punjab’s economy needs reforms

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