Election update: Free power is Punjab’s albatross

The Punjab elections on February 4 will be a keenly watched triangular contest between the ruling SAD (B)-BJP alliance, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). All three groups claim to be saviours of Punjab but their manifestos don’t exude much confidence on the water and sanitation front. The contenders are either repeating past promises or making bigger ones without a concrete plan. 

The Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue figures prominently in the manifestos as all parties promise not to let Punjab’s waters be transferred to Haryana or for that matter, to any other state. 

The Congress's chief minister candidate Captain Amarinder Singh had resigned from the Lok Sabha last year along with 42 MLAs of the Punjab Congress in protest of the Supreme Court’s verdict quashing the legislation that absolved Punjab from water-sharing agreements. The SAD (B)'s manifesto says since the party has already returned the acquired land to the farmers, the canal can’t be constructed. The AAP's manifesto repeats this promise saying that re-registration of the acquired land will be done in the name of original owners. 

The BJP was caught on the back foot on this issue being in the ruling dispensations of Punjab and Haryana as well as at the Centre; a reason why prime minister Narendra Modi tried to shift the focus instead to Indus Water Treaty saying that India will stop the water of Satluj, Ravi and Beas from flowing out to Pakistan.

Free power and irrigation

Time and again, free power for irrigation has been termed the reason for Punjab’s declining groundwater, the continuation of wheat-rice cycle and the agriculture distress. Of the 138 administrative blocks in Punjab, 110 are overexploited, four are critical and two are semi-critical.

Around 75 percent of the Punjab’s irrigated area uses groundwater mainly to grow paddy, which is not a native crop of this semi-arid region but fetches assured market price. With the average rainfall not matching the requirement of this water-guzzling crop, farmers are forced to depend heavily on the receding groundwater. The expenditure on re-digging of borewells adds to the farmers’ debts which have forced thousands to end their lives. 

However, none of the political parties want to look long term. While the Congress vows to continue the eight-hour free power supply daily, the SAD (B) promises 10 hour supply and the AAP goes further ahead with 12-hour of free power. SAD (B) also promises tube wells to all farmers irrespective of the land holding. Only the Congress mentions support for efficient irrigation systems which include drip and sprinklers besides promotion of solar energy for irrigation pump sets. Punjab has only 13,400 hectares under micro irrigation as compared to 50,000 hectares in the neighbouring Haryana. 

Rivers and ponds 

The Congress manifesto not only promises to clean the rivers but also assures their canalisation and construction of high-speed economic corridors on their bunds. This will hamper the free flow of rivers and their ecological services. The SAD (B) focuses only on Kali Bein, the holy rivulet in Sikh religion, by promising to launch a special initiative to ensure its purity. 

Despite the harmful impacts of illegal and unscientific sand mining on river ecology and groundwater aquifers, none of the parties promises to curb the menace. The Congress only focuses on its business aspect by promising to decartelise the trade. On the other hand, the SAD (B) talks only about the restriction on mining on sites of natural beauty, leaving all other locations out of the ambit.

A state-wide tree plantation programme, mandatory rainwater harvesting through farm ponds, the revival of water bodies and adoption of a watershed approach to conserve water find space in the Congress manifesto. 

The Congress also talks about making pollution control board accountable through community participation. But the only solution the party seems to have come up to deal with the industrial pollution in Ludhiana city is to move the pollution to the adjoining areas. It proposes incentives like subsidised plots for small industries to shift outside the city instead of stringent rules to check pollution. 

The BJP is promising an Organic Farming Board to promote chemical-free agriculture. High use of pesticides and fertilisers in Punjab is known to have contributed to soil and water pollution besides increasing the farming input costs.

Farm distress

The National Sample Survey Organisation has pointed out that farming has now become non-remunerative for small and medium farmers in Punjab. All political parties promise to achieve a turnaround. Higher support prices for crops figure prominently in the manifestos which swear by the M.S. Swaminathan report of 2006 which talked about giving 50 percent profit above the cost of production to farmers. 

Crop loss due to extreme weather events, like drought and flood, also gets attention. Congress promises compensation to land-owning farmers and agricultural labourers while AAP offers Rs 20,000 per acre to farmers and Rs 10,000 per month to labourers for loss of work.

The Congress repeats the old promise of incentives to farmers who invest in crop diversification. The AAP has a more elaborate plan on this. It pledges to pay the differential amount between Minimum Support Price and market rate for maize, basmati and pulses to the farmers. Congress also promises free regular soil health testing.

Sewerage and toilets

Punjab has high toilet coverage at 80.35 percent but the treatment capacity does not match the high load of sewage generated by these toilets. In villages, wastewater leads through drains to village ponds or goes underground, contaminating the groundwater at certain places.

The SAD (B) reiterates its promise of 100 percent sewerage network and water supply in villages. The Congress also makes similar noises about providing potable piped drinking water supplies and durable arrangement of sanitation with a toilet to each and every rural household in the next two years. Cleaning of village ponds is promised by both while SAD (B) also assures to concretise these. 

Considering the focus is on populist agendas, it will be a long time before Punjab gets a “green party” that thinks long term.