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What you can't replenish, don't finish

Punjab and Haryana together are regarded as the breadbasket of India and have contributed substantially to the country's food security. More importantly, they have also shown the way to prosperity through rural development and have thus upheld Gandhiji's vision of treating the villages of India as the engines of development. These two states, with a population of approximately 28 million people in Punjab and over 25 million in Haryana, together constitute the size of an economy that would compare with a major European country. However, both face some major challenges which require some reorientation of priorities and new development strategies.

In terms of social indicators, both are doing reasonably well, except for pockets such as the Mewat region in Haryana, which still lags behind the rest of the state. However, one social indicator which is a source of deep concern is the gender ratio. The percentage of women in Punjab, according to the 2011 Census, was 893 females per 1,000 males, and in the case of Haryana 877 females per 1,000 males. These are appalling statistics given the remarkable progress these states have made in other respects. Clearly, there is a need for major social reform which has to be initiated not only by the political leadership but by the intellectual class, religious leaders and educators.

Beyond these social issues and the need to focus on the Human Development Index, there is also a need for both states to give priority to the challenge of sustainable development and inclusive growth. There is every reason to be concerned at major environmental problems. The water table in Punjab and Haryana has been dropping at an alarming rate, brought about essentially by policies such as highly subsidised electricity, which has led to excessive pumping of groundwater and its consequent depletion. Arguments are made that were it not for exploitation of groundwater major increase in agricultural production would not have been possible. But this can be countered by the fact that the marginal cost of every unit that is now being pumped is becoming higher, with the water table falling and, therefore, the cost of pumping increasing disproportionately. Underpriced groundwater also leads to excessive use of water for agriculture and the cultivation of crops that perhaps are not quite suited to the resource endowments in the two states. An example can be seen in the large-scale cultivation of paddy based on groundwater. Punjab and Haryana also have major problems of groundwater pollution with excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides. These impose major social costs in the form of adverse health effects. Subsidies on inputs like water and chemicals used in agriculture are leading to several negative impacts. These trends, of course, have been in existence for decades and the time has now come to take some hard decisions, which if explained to the public, would generally find acceptance. In particular, exposing the health effects of past trends and policies would have strong emotional and, therefore, political appeal.

In general, development as practised across the world throughout the 20th century has pursued a path which led to increased pollution and environmental damage while incomes and prosperity grew rapidly. By and large, environmental protection and pollution control was taken in hand only when a certain income threshold had been reached. The relationship between income and pollution was thus defined by what is known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Typically, the relationship shows an increase in income and pollution till a threshold income has been reached, after which societies have addressed environmental problems and pursued a decline in pollution and thereby an improvement in environmental quality as incomes increased further. For developing countries, pursuing the same path can have very harmful consequences. We need to find a lower threshold of income beyond which environmental protection must become an important part of development. Punjab and Haryana are clearly beyond the Indian threshold which should trigger a major effort to protect the environment.

Policies and actions must now focus on clean income-generating activities, a reduction in air pollution, curbing overexploitation and pollution of groundwater and a major programme of afforestation. In both states the Aravalli and Shivalik hills have been degraded seriously, requiring concerted efforts in greening them. More importantly, both the states are likely to face the impacts of climate change to an extent that would affect agricultural yields and human health as well as water availability. In general, the impacts of climate change exacerbate existing environmental and ecological stress, which Punjab and Haryana can hardly afford. Given the size of the economy of the two states it is essential they spend a substantial amount of resources on R&D to address the problems of unsustainable development. Both need to focus on creating a knowledge based economy, and for this R&D efforts in every sector become important, ensuring efficient use of energy, water and other resources, as well application of frontier technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and information science. Given the intellectual calibre of leadership in both states, perhaps these new priorities in development will receive urgent attention, resulting in policies and actions for the benefit of this generation and those yet to come.

Tags: sustainable development, TERI, Punjab, Haryana, Human Development Index, subsidised electricity, Shivalik hills, inclusive growth

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