Punjab polls: Look who’s playing the highland game

Election-bound Punjab is in a drug-induced stupor, cancer from pesticide exposure is rampant in its farm belts. Old-guard politicians have been lazy, and AAP hopes to cash in


Jasleen Kaur | February 3, 2017 | New Delhi

#SAD   #AAP   #Badals   #Punjab   #Elections   #Assembly Polls   #Sukhbir Singh Badal  
The men who matter: Capt Amarinder Singh of Congress, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and SAD’s Sukbhir Singh Badal
The men who matter: Capt Amarinder Singh of Congress, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and SAD’s Sukbhir Singh Badal

Punjab’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal may well be right when he claims that no one can say his government has not performed on the parameters of development. What is left unsaid and unacknowledged are the social problems facing the state, including that of rampant drug use across the state.

Punjab, known for its lush green fields that once symbolised the progressive state, is today paying a heavy price for political neglect. Drugs is a big business in Punjab, bringing in easy money. Some of the powerful names in the political corridors have allegedly also been involved. The number of addicts is alarmingly high.

Ignorance about the drug menace was quite evident when the Shiromani Akali Dal objected to the movie Udta Punjab, released in June last year, which dealt with the problem of drug abuse by the state’s youth. The government had said Punjab was being defamed by being called a drug hub.

Though there is no comprehensive study by the state government on the impact of drugs, a number of surveys done by independent agencies highlight the plight. They show that at least half of Punjab’s population in the age group of 16-35 is addicted to drugs. A study by the state department of social security and development of women and children shows that there is at least one drug addict in 67 percent of the households in Punjab. The fact is that drugs have been part of rural Punjab for decades. But the Akali Dal-BJP government has always downplayed its existence.

Punjab will elect 117 MLAs, but the poll outcome is unpredictable. Voting will take place on February 4, while the vote count will be on March 11. The state, known for its bitter electoral battles between Akali Dal-BJP and the Congress, will see its first triangular fight in the assembly elections as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too is in the fray. The Shiromani Akali Dal had scripted history when it won a consecutive term in the assembly elections in 2012 – the first by any party.

This time, the anti-incumbency factor against the SAD-BJP government is high. And they will surely have to fight the stigma of being in power for two consecutive terms, yet not doing enough to get rid of the drug menace that has ruined generations.

“People have no problem if you take bribe. It is a nation-wide phenomenon. But drugs are not acceptable anymore,” says Ashutosh Kumar, Punjab-based political analyst and professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

He adds, “Earlier drug addiction was seen as a problem of the poor, dalits and unemployed youth. But now the issue is about synthetic drugs, which include costly substance like heroin. The rich zamindars [landowners] buy that. The core support base of Akali Dal is the Jat Sikh. This is going to hit Akalis really hard this time.”

Punjab has been battling drug abuse for years, irrespective of which party ruled the state. But if the party has been in power for 10 years and drugs are still freely available, it certainly has to take the blame.

“When the issue is raised, the government will only catch hold of a few suppliers and addicts from villages. But there is no effort to find the root cause,” Kumar adds.

Drugs is not the only problem. There are other issues too. The state has faced political neglect. And there has been no improvement in the last five years.

During the 2012 state assembly elections, there was the scourge of poor education, failure in generating employment, poor health sector, increasing number of farmer suicides as some of the issues of concern among people. They all continue to plague the state.

These issues have never really been part of the poll manifestos of the traditional parties. It is now believed unfulfilled promises by the state government will result in resentment among the voters against the ruling party.

Professor Santokh Singh, a political analyst based in Ludhiana, says there is development which is visible in terms of construction of roads, malls and airports, but there has been no focus on social problems. He adds the development has been superficial and impacts only 5-10 percent of the population.

“The development which could affect the lives of common people, improve their income and quality of life, create employment opportunities, and bring in quality in school and college education has not been there. The health sector has been pushed towards privatisation. The infrastructure that has been developed will benefit only the rich people. The poor have been largely neglected,” he adds.

Emergence of AAP

Though the Congress led by Capt Amarinder Singh of the Patiala royal family is the main contender, voters are open for an alternative in the form of the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP. In the 2014 general elections – the only election AAP fought in the state – of the 13 parliamentary constituencies, Shiromani Akali Dal and AAP had won four seats each, Congress won three and BJP won two. And this third contender has been gaining ground in the state since then. Singh believes AAP could reap the benefits of the public anger towards the ruling party.

Certainly, AAP should be given the credit for raising the issue of drugs during the elections in 2014. “I see the AAP getting clear-cut majority among the youth, which is emerging as the big vote base. AAP is also gaining in Malwa region. And with 68 assembly constituencies out of total 117 in this region, the party building a base here cannot be ruled out of [electoral fray],” he explains. The region has traditionally formed the base of the Akalis.

Farmers living in the Malwa region, known as the cotton belt of Punjab, have been suffering health problems for more than a decade. They have been exposed to toxins because of the excessive use of pesticides over the years. There is also high content of cancer-causing agents in water and soil. And the region has seen continuous increase in the number of cancer patients. In order to seek affordable treatment, poor farmers have been forced to travel to Bikaner in Rajasthan for years. The government, though, recently inaugurated the Advanced Cancer Research and Diagnostic (ACRD) centre in Bathinda.

“AAP is in a stronger position today. Though there is nothing revolutionary about their programmes or manifesto. All the parties are talking in the same [language]. But they are playing with the sentiment of change. What that change will be, nobody knows,” says Singh. n




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