In Punjab’s Debt-Ridden Malwa Region, AAP Is Seen as the Only Hope

This story first appeared on The Quint on 3 February 2017.

In the remote village of Bhaini Bagha, about 60 km from Bathinda, Badal Singh, 43, shook his head in disapproval with eyes shut when asked his name.

Sitting on a khat on the verandah of his neighbour’s typical Punjabi house, which was enveloped in the early morning fog, Badal said the name invokes hatred in Bhaini Bagha.

As one travels deep into Punjab’s Malwa region from Majha and Doaba, the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and the Badals – the family in charge of the ruling party in the state – turns into contempt and anger.

In fact, some of the things they say here are unprintable. Spanning the whole region lying on the Sutlej’s left bank and bordering Haryana and Rajasthan, Malwa is an overwhelmingly agrarian area. The majority of its residents are small and marginal farmers, living with the burden of debt palpably hanging around their neck.

Killer Farm Loans

By the time April 2016 had ended, 93 farmers had committed suicide in Malwa. One of them was Badal’s neighbour Gurtej Singh, 35. “He had taken a loan,which kept increasing due to interest,” said his 70-year-old mother Gurmeet Kaur, sitting under the photograph of her son in the room attached to the verandah. “When it reached 5 lakh rupees, he gave up.”

Unseasonal rains and erratic weather patterns negated the hard work and investments of Malwa’s farmers. The cotton crop that Gurtej had been cultivating on his 2-acre farmland dried up. He sold half-an-acre of the land, but that too did not ease his debt burden.

There is not a single farmer here who is not grappling with debt. The devastating crop loss was the last straw for my son.

Gurmeet Kaur 

Small and marginal farmers – with land holdings of up to five acres – make up for almost 80 percent of the farmer suicides. In Punjab, such farmers – as well as farmer suicides – are concentrated in Malwa. With variable costs like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, diesel etc increasing, and additional fixed costs, even a good crop barely delivers a satisfactory profit margin. This makes agriculture economically unviable for Malwa’s marginal farmers, compelling them to turn to commission agents (called arhtiyas), who charge interest rates of up to 36 percent for loans.

Single-Crop Culture Adds to Woes

Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, said the state’s agrarian sector is burdened with Rs 80,000 crore debt.

Per household, it (debt) comes to around Rs 8 lakh. An average income of a farmer in a good year does not exceed Rs 5 lakh.

Sukhpal Singh, Senior Economist, Punjab Agriculture University

Malwa predominantly suffers from the mono-crop culture, or growing a single variety of crop. This is why the government introduced a policy of diversifying cropping patterns. However, agriculture experts believe, merely announcing a policy without offering any incentives like a minimum support price would have no real impact, as a farmer would not risk a change of crop. Further, with no measures to deal with climate change, the farmers’ plight has only intensified with time.

Sukhpal said despite Punjab having been an overwhelmingly agrarian state, it is bizarre it does not have agro-based industries in rural areas that would process and market crops. He added that agro-based industries would generate employment as well.

Forget creating a suitable atmosphere for farming, the government has virtually discouraged people from persisting with it.

After the whitefly attack that destroyed the cotton crop in 2015, the government had provided pesticides at subsidised rates. While farmers said the pesticides were bogus and only worsened crops, agriculture minister Tota Singh accused them of buying spurious pesticides from “outside sources”.

For the crop loss that ran into lakhs according to Gurmeet, the government’s compensation of Rs 8,000 only rubbed salt into their wounds. “It does not even cover the cost of the fertilisers we buy,” she said with a wistful smile that deepened her wrinkles. “The people running the state are having a good time while we are dying. It’s our fault that we elected them twice.”

The Road to Power Runs Through Malwa

The anti-incumbency against the Badals in Malwa is palpable and has been galvanised almost single-handedly by the Aam Aadmi Party. The relatively muted AAP campaign in Majha and Doaba springs to life in Malwa, with bike rallies and tractor parades being seen through the region.

AAP has captured the imagination of the region, which can be safely called the road to power in the Punjab Assembly. Most of the Chief Ministers of Punjab have come from Malwa. Out of the 117 Assembly seats, it accounts for as many as 69. And AAP would be targeting around 45 of them, with a reasonable share from Majha and Doaba seeing them through the halfway mark.

The whole village of Bhaini Bagha is set to “vote for Arvind Kejriwal”, who is seen as a messiah over here.

The village holds a meeting and we vote for the same candidate after consulting each other. We think only he (Kejriwal) can rescue us from the goonda raj of the Badals. He is a simple man who thinks of the poor.

Gurmeet Kaur

Shinder Pal, 35, a cab driver in Bathinda, said the state has only seen a two-way electoral contest till date, and it is now in shambles with no law and order or employment.

Though the Congress is far better than the Akali Dal, that does not say much about the party. The benchmark for political parties is already so low that AAP’s arrival cannot make it any worse.

Shinder Pal, cab driver

AAP, A Strong Contender

Malwa has often dominated Punjab politics and even in this election, some of the most intriguing battles are being fought here. In Jalalabad, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has locked horns with AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who has managed to get under the skin of the Badals. The family that practically runs the state has been subject to contempt and criticism but Mann, with his humour and unique ability to attract crowds, has reduced them to a bunch of jokers. Ground reporters say he has his nose in front at the moment.

In Lambi, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is engaged in a three-way fight with Congress’ CM candidate Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP heavyweight Jarnail Singh. The split of votes between AAP and the Congress should ensure the CM holds on to his bastion, which he had first served as it’s youngest sarpanch at the age of 19. Nonetheless, participants at his recent rally in Lambi spoke out vehemently against the family, which is indicative of the mood in the entire state.

Jitendra Singh, who sells samosas and noodles in the village, said Parkash Badal is a good man but his son Sukhbir has ruined the image of the party.

The kind of people Sukhbir has been encouraging is deplorable. They are all goons who have the government’s support.

Jitendra Singh, Stall Owner

Raking Up Khalistan

Realising this trend, Sukhbir tried to paint Kejriwal as pro-Khalistan. Referring to the blast that killed 6 in Bathinda, the deputy CM said Kejriwal’s ascent would mean the resurgence of radicals. While the AAP has been entertaining radicals, Malwa’s electorate are facing too stark a problem to fall for the Akali propaganda. Living with extreme poverty and debts, they have pinned their hopes on AAP as “the rescuer from the swamp in which the Akali Dal has pushed them”.

With the government’s failure to create jobs, farmers say it makes it even more difficult to explore other opportunities. Yet, two lakh marginal farmers have hung up their boots in the last five years, said Sukhpal. “It has led to consolidation of land with big landowners, while small farmers have become poorer,” he said.

In June 2014, Sukhdev Kaur, 50, leased out the farmland after her son Gurpreet Singh, 29, committed suicide by consuming pesticide, succumbing to the pressure of debt. Sukhdev, who lives in the lane adjacent to Gurtej’s house in Bhaini Bagha, said she will do odd jobs and ensure her other son, Gurjeet, 19, gets a proper education. “No matter what happens, farming is a no-no,” she said. “I have lost one son. I do not want to lose another.”

With Factories Being Shut, Unemployment Echoes in Punjab’s Doaba

This story first appeared on The Quint on 1 February 2017.

To what extent can one go to avoid coming back to one’s own country? Prabjot Sood, 28, got married. After he completed his matriculation from Jalandhar, he headed to Canada on a two-year education visa to pursue mechanical engineering, which proved too arduous for his abilities. He dropped out and began driving a truck instead. “I realised I could make more money than what my friends did back home with their fancy degrees,” he said.

However, he ran into trouble after the visa expired. “The only way I could have remained in Canada was to get married,” Sood said. “And I did.”

‘Impossible to Find a Job in Punjab’

But Sood did not get along with his wife. The marriage ended, and so did the stay in Canada. In January last year, Sood was deported back to his hometown of Jalandhar, which falls in Punjab’s Doaba region that covers the area between Beas and Sutlej rivers.

However, Sood is not the only one to have been deported. In the last three years, 6000 residents of Doaba have been deported from US and Canada for entering illegally, forging documents or overstaying their visa. “It is impossible to find a job in Punjab,” said Sood. “Jalandhar, Ludhiana used to be hubs of industries and factories. They have all shut shops over the years. Where does one work now?”

Doaba Region Hit by Deindustrialisation

There are 23 crucial seats in Doaba, and when Punjab goes to polls on 4 February, unemployment of youngsters would be a critical factor on the electorate’s mind, for it has been ailing the whole state for a long time. The Congress has campaigned on the plank of promising a job per household. AAP’s 51-point manifesto is called “for the youth, of the youth and by the youth”.

Both the parties are trying to capitalise on the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal, which has been governing the state for a decade, and has done nothing to stop the slide. In 2014, newspaper reports said 18,770 factories have shut down since the Akali government came to power. Observers say it is a conservative number, and many more have followed suit in the last two years.

While Majha and Malwa regions are overwhelmingly agrarian, the tremors of de-industrialisation have been most severe in Doaba, which consists of towns like Ludhiana – once known to be a steel hub and manufacturers of cycles – and Jalandhar, where sports goods industry used to prosper.

Mass Exodus of Factories

In a narrow lane running through the Lasudi mohalla in Jalandhar West constituency, families are busy weaving footballs for different factories that are still operational. The women weave, while the men do the coolie work. Raj Rani, 50, has been making footballs for the past 27 years. “I got married in December. Lived like a princess for a month. And since February, I have been making footballs,” she described her married life in three lines. “I used to make 200 rupees per day 20 years ago. Today, I still make 200 rupees.”

Rani said Jalandhar had close to 800 factories back then, but there are hardly 50 today. The sports industry has moved to Meerut and cycle-makers like Hero and Avon, for which Ludhiana used to be a den, have expanded elsewhere, creating a massive void of jobs.

“The amount of work has gone down drastically,” Rani said, while weaving the ball. Her hands worked in harmony, like a flight on an autopilot mode. “The whole mohalla was into it. Now we are all struggling to make our ends meet.”

Industrialists and businessmen lay the blame of this mass exodus by factories squarely on the Akali Dal government in alliance with the BJP, and more so on the CM’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the party and Deputy CM of Punjab.

Requesting anonymity, a businessman, who became a member of the Akali Dal ten years ago, said it is impossible to do business in Punjab if you are not close to the Badals. “Sukhbir is greedy,” he said, sitting in his office, which had a photograph of him and Sukhbir.

If a business is doing well, he (Sukhbir Badal) would ask for a cut. It reduces your margins significantly. And if you have a fallout with him, he makes your life miserable.

A businessman on conditions of anonymity

Further, activists say that since most of the state’s businesses that generate substantial revenue belong to Badals or their proxies, many do not pay taxes, resulting in the state being starved of funds, which is why it has to compensate from elsewhere.

Educated Youth Forced to Do Odd Jobs

While other states lure industries to set up their factories, Punjab charges Rs 8 per unit for electricity – other states charge around Rs 4-5. On power bills, Punjab charges Octroi and Cow Cess. It drastically increases the production cost, and has reduced the purchasing power of the people.

Lakhs of educated youngsters are thereby languishing, doing odd jobs. Anmol Gulathi, 18, a bright young college student, drives an auto at night.

A friend of mine has done B.Tech. He works as a delivery boy and earns Rs 6,000. I get Rs 9,000. There are so many like him as labour here has become dirt-cheap. We are all waiting for the opportunity to go abroad and settle down.

Anmol Gulathi, student

Consequently, English-speaking course, or IELTS, have proliferated across Punjab, which basically train the youngsters to get out of the state. Click a photograph of a random skyline and it will not be without the IELTS signboard.

The electorate holds the Badals accountable for the quagmire, and Congress and AAP are fighting hard to gain from it. The youth in Doaba is tilting towards the fresher because it does not carry any baggage. Anmol said Punjab needs a fresh face, which will enthuse voters.

The Congress is corrupt as well. They do not have the ability to expose the Akali scams. The Akalis will manage them. Only AAP can put the ones who are ruining the state behind bars.

Anmol Gulathi, student

AAP’s Charm Depends on Age Group

Rita Cheema, 31, residing in Kartarpur constituency on the outskirts of Jalandhar, said AAP speaks the language of the people. “They seem concerned about the people,” she said. “I cannot say the same thing about the Congress. Akalis are not even worth mentioning. AAP deserves a chance.”

Moreover, even though the unemployment has intensified during the last decade, situation prior to that, when Congress was in charge, was not hunky dory either, which AAP has harped upon, knowing Congress is their main opponent. In June 2006, Tribune India had written an editorial titled “Spectre of unemployment looms large in Doaba”.

However, as the age group changes, AAP’s charm wanes.

The pro-Khalistan chunk, which is disillusioned with the Akali Dal, and would never vote for Congress, are backing AAP. The NRIs are lobbying for them like never before. But commentators say these NRIs are the ones who fled Punjab during the militancy, and are now using AAP to regain significance. Doaba is the most politically aware and socially conscious region of the three, and the way AAP is entertaining radicals has not been received well here, raising concerns for the long run.

AAP Pandering to Radical Elements

Surjeet Kaur, 60, said she fears the Khalistan slogans would be heard again if AAP comes to power. “If Kejriwal is using them, they would expect something in return,” she said.

If he (Kejriwal) concedes the SGPC and Akal Takht, we might see the resurgence of radicals. Having lived through the period, I dread that. Captain Amrinder, on the other hand, is an experienced cog, who would know how to deal with all sections of the society. I wonder if AAP is capable of handling a complex state like Punjab. They are inexperienced.

Surjeet Kaur

Dalit Advantage for AAP

Doaba has over 40 percent Dalit votes with noticeable BSP followers. They are en-masse gravitating towards AAP, because they have recognised BSP as a spoiler. But the head of the dera of Ravidasa sect among the Dalits, which has a following of close to a million in Doaba, has tacitly extended its support to the Congress, which means the Congress has its nose ahead in the region.

Disillusioned Youth Flocking to Foreign Shores

Akin to Majha, AAP suffers from a brittle local cadre, and has relied on the face of Arvind Kejriwal, who is seen as a messiah in the all-important Malwa region with 69 seats. The reports of an AAP sweep in Malwa are spreading, which could influence voters from Majha and Doaba ahead of the polls. AAP has thrown all its might in Malwa and only has to ensure a respectable performance in the other two regions to scrape through to the halfway mark.

However, one person who is least bothered about Punjab and its future is Sood. After having failed to find a job in Jalandhar for the past year, he has fallen back on his tried and tested strategy to escape the misery of his home state. He got married in January this year. His wife is a 20-year old B.Com student, who wants to study abroad.

The pre-conditions of the wedding was simple. Sood’s parents from their savings will bear the expenses for the MBA the bride intends to pursue. And Sood will tag along on the back of his wife’s visa. It has worked out well. Both are set to fly to New Zealand in May.

In Punjab’s Majha Region, Anti-Incumbency Wave Favours Congress

This story first appeared on The Quint on 30 January 2017.

Harjeet Singh arrives at the Golden Temple. He walks through the divine passage, removes his chappals, picks out a handkerchief and wraps it around his head. He heads down the steps and bows down as the majestic monument appears. He looks at it with reverence and throws a disillusioned glance at the Akal Takht – located in the same complex.

Politics in the Name of Religion

While the Golden Temple stands for spiritual guidance, Akal Takht – the highest seat of authority among Sikhs – is the symbol of dispensing justice.

In October 2015, several instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, transpired, which triggered widespread protests across Punjab. Amritsar, being the religious capital, saw most intense protests, which spiralled into the Majha region of Punjab, covering the area between the Beas and Ravi Rivers.

In spite of the agitations, the state government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal in alliance with the BJP has not been able to nab the culprits, which still rankles the Sikhs here. Further, the fact that the Jathedar of the Akal Takht did not speak out against the failure of the Badals – the family in charge of the Akali Dal – deepens their scar.

It is shameful the way Jathedar sahib has become a pawn of the Badals. His stature is no less than that of the pope. There was a time in Punjab when Jathedar’s word would be gospel. Now, nobody takes him seriously.

Harjeet, a rickshaw-puller

Dilution of the Akal Takht’s Autonomy

Over the last decade of the Akali rule, the Badal family has prospered while driving the state to ruins. Parkash Singh Badal is the Chief Minister. His family members control important portfolios in the state cabinet. The family, locals say, has taken over the state. But among the orthodox Sikhs, who have been the Akali Dal’s traditional vote bank, the dilution of the autonomy of the Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is an unpardonable crime.

The SGPC – which is considered the custodian of Sikh religion and works towards promoting it while monitoring Gurudwaras and the schools and hospitals it runs across the country – also remained conspicuously silent during the sacrilege of 2015.

A member of the SGPC, requesting anonymity with folded hands, said, that out of the almost 200 members of the committee, 180 are Akali Dal stooges. “Our tongues are controlled by the SGPC president and Jathedar,” he said in a hushed voice at the fourth floor of a hotel room in Amritsar. “Both dance to the tune of Badals.”

Orthodox Sikhs Unhappy with Akali Dal

The politicisation, and thereby seizure, of revered religious posts has not gone down well with the orthodox Sikhs, or Garmkhayalis as they are called here, and it is apparent that they would express their anger at the ballot box. Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member, said they respected the president of Akali Dal even more than the CM of Punjab. “There was hardly any remorse from him,” he said, sitting at a haveli in front of which a lush green farmland spread out.

A true Sikh will not vote for the Akali Dal.

Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member

Allegations Related to Drug Cartel Will Backfire

Another reason why the electorate will ensure the Akali Dal does not get another term is the burgeoning drug trade. Bikram Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of Akali president Sukhbir Singh Badal and the revenue minister in the state cabinet, is named as one of those running the illicit trade.

However, the CM, president of Akali Dal and Narendra Modi, supremo of its ally BJP, have denied or downplayed the crisis, despite a whole generation being destroyed.

Anti-Incumbency Wave in Favour of Congress

In the corner of a remote village of Jhander in Amritsar’s Ajnala town, Gurumeet Kaur and her ailing husband Badkar Singh wonder whether to laugh or cry at these statements. Their son, Resham Singh, 32, has not returned home for a few days but they do not seem to be worried. “He does that every now and then,” said dark-coloured, wrinkled face Badkar, sitting on a khat with a blanket wrapped around his body to weather the chill in the air.

Gurumeet and Badkar found out their son was a drug addict when he was 24. “We got to know because a friend of his did it,” said Gurumeet, serving a hot cup of tea. “He started stealing money from the house, our jewellery disappeared. If his elder brother had not been working, we would have been sleeping on the road.”

There is not a single person in this state who is unaware of Majithia’s involvement, said Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant. “The reason Arun Jaitley lost the Lok Sabha elections even during the Modi wave is because Majithia was his campaign manager,” he said. “While the drug menace is decaying the whole of Punjab, the border areas in Majha are the villages through which it is smuggled.”

Riding on the anti-incumbency in Majha, where 25 out of the 117 seats fall, is the Congress with Navjot Singh Sidhu proving to be a star campaigner. Contesting from the East Amritsar constituency, Sidhu’s presence has propelled the Congress, along with Captain Amarinder as the CM candidate. “He is an honest man,” said a shopkeeper in East Amritsar. “We would have voted for him even if he had been in the BJP.”

AAP Should’ve Declared a CM Candidate

AAP, on the other hand, is lagging a bit behind, because of the lack of a credible Sikh face. The team of MLAs in Majha, say observers, does not invoke confidence. Upkar Singh Sandhu, who is now in the ranks of AAP, is a former Akali district president, seen to be close to Majithia.

There are a few more defectors who are dicey. If AAP had declared a CM candidate with Kejriwal resisting the urge to jump ships, they would have swept.

Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant

Commentators believe that someone like HS Phoolka, who has been fighting for justice for 1984 riot victims, would have been an ideal choice, but insiders say he refuses to toe the line of the head command – the reason behind his marginalisation. If AAP had struck a deal with Sidhu, it would have increased their chances, as his popularity cuts across age groups.

Because AAP has not empowered its local leadership, “the party has not effectively influenced the religious votebank,” said Sarabhjit. “The interplay of politics and religion plays a crucial role here. I do not think we are still ready to have a non-Sikh CM.”

Even then, the radical Sikhs, who are disenchanted with Badals, will not vote Congress because of Indira Gandhi’s operation Blue Star and the 1984 riots that followed. “That vote will go to the AAP,” said Amrik Singh, head of Damdami Taksal, a radical Sikh group, who refers to Akali Dal as “Badal Dal”. Sitting in his office at Ajnala adorned with photographs of Bhindranwale, he said AAP deserves a chance, with the Congress and the Akalis having already been in power.

Congress Needs Momentum for a Comeback

But the radical voters are outnumbered by mellowed religious Sikhs who are likely to express their anger against the Akalis by voting for the Congress. Baldev Singh said the Captain is a trusted old school lieutenant who knows the state better than AAP. “He has worked in Punjab for so many years,” he said.

“He knows our culture and rituals. He would bring back rule of law in the state while preserving our ethos.” Badals, in the meantime, struggling to tackle the anti-incumbency, are hoping for a split in votes. Congress had lost out in Majha during the previous elections with 16 of the 25 seats going to the Akali Dal. AAP is reportedly well ahead in Malwa, which has 68 seats.

For the Congress to make a comeback in Punjab, it needs to further consolidate the momentum and ensure a remarkable performance in this region. However, one strata of society which it has failed to woo is the labour class. Harjeet, the cycle-rickshaw driver, said the Congress and the Akali are in cahoots with each other. “There is only one man who can ensure justice in this lawless state right now,” he concluded. “Arvind Kejriwal.”