A day-long conference on State of Rural Economy of Punjab was organized by Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh on 23rd January, 2010 at its headquarters in Gurudwara Singh Sabha, Kanthala, Indl. Area Phase II, Chandigarh. Dr. Amarjit Singh Khehra, former Vice Chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana presided over the same.
In the welcome address S. Pritam Singh Kohli, President IOSS briefly touched upon the main issues relating to the rural economy of Punjab to be discussed at the conference i.e. Agriculture development, Rural education, Rural health, Rural indebtedness, unemployment and underemployment. He hoped that the interactions amongst scholars and leaders of farmers’ organizations would help in formulating concrete recommendations to effectively address some of the issues and concerns to be highlighted during the conference.
The inaugural address was by Dr. G.S.Kalkat, Padma Vibhushan (Chairman- Punjab State Farmers Commission). He summarized the history of agricultural development of Punjab and how self-sufficiency was attained in food grain production to overcome the food crisis facing the nation. He explained that agricultural yield in Punjab is amongst the highest in the world and it might not be possible to further increase it using current technology. Even though income per acre has increased a lot, the income per household had gone down due to breakdown of the joint family system and fragmentation of agricultural holdings.
He then elaborated on the problems of depletion of water table and other environmental hazards which have arisen due to the wheat-rice cycle of cultivation currently being undertaken by the Punjab farmers. This cycle of cultivation was being promoted by the Government of India by providing marketing support for the produce to ensure food security of the country. However, for protecting the ecological balance of the state it was incumbent to start cultivating alternative crops like maize.
He also spoke about the problem of rural indebtedness. He felt that due to faulty qualifying criteria, agricultural loans were being advanced to farmers with small and marginal holdings. These holdings are economically unviable and the loans taken are often misused. He also stressed upon the need for social reform and the need to cut down ostentatious expenditure. He felt that religious preachers having large following in rural areas can play an important role in this regard.
During his stint as VC of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana a study which he got conducted revealed that hardly any students from rural areas were studying in the University. The primary education system in rural areas of Punjab was is a mess and as a result rural youth were unable to get admission for higher education courses. People from rural areas thus did not get to play a proper role in the policy making of the state. There was an urgent need to improve the system of rural education in Punjab.
S. Karam Singh, Formerly Director, Agro Economics Centre, PAU, Ludhiana furnished detailed statistics and charts highlighting the over exploitation and depletion of ground water resources in the state. He cautioned that it would be suicidal if agricultural development is allowed to end due to mismanagement of the state’s water resources. He said that even though some steps had been taken through the Punjab Preservation of sub-soil water Act, 2009 - these were still insufficient to tackle the problem. The need of the hour was to use new technologies available such as laser levelers, ridgers/ trenchers and happy seeders to yield more crop per drop.
Dr. Sukhwinder Singh, Professor of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala spoke on the subject of Rural Health in Punjab. He highlighted that fact that Punjab spends a mere 1% of its budget on Rural Health Schemes which is far less than other states which average about 3% of their total public expenditure. Rural institutions are starved of essential medicines, test facilities, first aid kits and are reduced to be mere consultation clinics. Emergency and Hospitalization services are almost non-existent in most of rural areas. It results in poor people being deprived of any medical care and also quacks thriving and charging them frivolously. Rich people and emerging middle class of people may have access to private nursing homes but there is no provision for the poor. There has not been any regulatory policy and effort at fixing fair fees for services rendered by private doctors. He suggested that Punjab should urgently take a long range view of the health sector and integrate it to the other components of rural development strategy by a) raising the demand for ‘improved health’ b) improving the quality of public health services and c) controlling the ever-growing reliance on private health sector.
Dr. Ranjit Singh Ghuman, Professor and Head, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala spoke on the subject of Higher Education scenario in Punjab. He stated that education is a key growth driver but during the last about three decades it was being consistently ignored by the successive governments in Punjab. In 1980, about 22 per cent of the Punjab budget was allocated to education which had now shrunk to about 12 per cent. This has led to the collapse of education, particularly rural education, and emergence of commercially oriented private players in education. At the present level of costs, nearly 45 per cent of rural people cannot afford the cost of general higher education. The proportion of rural population in Punjab is 66 per cent but the share of rural students in the universities of Punjab is around 4 per cent and that in the higher professional education their share is only 3.7 per cent. There is thus a clear cut exclusion of rural students from higher education in Punjab. Nearly 70 per cent of rural households and 90 per cent of the rural agricultural labour-households do not have even one person with matric qualification. The solution to this lies in mobilizing additional resources and substantial allocation of funds to education sector. The Government and publicly aided educational institutions must be strengthened.
Dr Sukhpal Singh, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana highlighted the various social and financial reasons for suicides by the farmers in Punjab. According to a survey in two districts of the Punjab from 2000 to 2008, it was found that out of 2890 suicides in Punjab during this period, 1751 were farmers. And out of these 79% of farmers were owners of less than 5 acres land and 38% of these were in the age group 20-30 years. Indebtedness was the main cause of 60% of the cases who committed suicide.
Others who spoke on the occasion included Dalveer Singh Rajowal of Bharti Kissan Union, Lt. Gen. Kartar Singh Gill of the International Sikh Confederation, S. Inderjit Singh Jaijee and Dr. Gopal Aiyer.
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