Monday, April 28, 2014

Ajaz Ashraf - Jhadu wave sweeps Punjab

"Na bhukki ko, na daaru ko, vote denge jhaddu ko.” 

AAP has become the beacon of hope because people know it isn’t in the interest of the existing political class to stem the supply of narcotics 
The unexpected surge of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab is an outcome of the disheartening disconnect between the politics of elites and the grassroots reality. In the ensuing vacuum AAP has stepped in, riding the desperation of a people forever in search of light in the darkness enveloping the state for well over two decades. The momentum AAP had achieved will see it not only register a high percentage of votes but also win a few seats. 

Earlier, the militant’s gun was the symbol of Punjab’s darkness. Today, it is the young man’s favourite hit – smack or heroin or opium or ice – that has become emblematic of its misery. Punjab has veritably become the land of dope-heads and mainliners. Hear this: a 2011 survey by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment concluded that 40 per cent of those in the age group of 15-25 years in the state are addicts, as are 48 per cent of farmers and agricultural labour.
The survey has its critics for the methodology it employed. But you have to speak to social activists, academicians, police officers, and rural folks and they will tell you, in voices quivering with rage, the surreal nature of democratic politics in the land of drug addicts. Sukhbir Singh, of Valtoha block, Tarn Taran, runs the Baba Inder Singh Memoral Sports Club, but doesn’t have boys scrambling to avail of the facilities he offers. Seventy-five per cent of Valtoha’s boys have crossed the Line of Dependency, desperately in need of a daily fix. Sukhbir and his friends have held marches, petitioned the authorities, submitted a memorandum demanding a crackdown on drug pushers. Nothing happened.
Then Sukhbir decided to welcome AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal on his roadshow in the area early in March. The news of it had an MLA scurrying over to his house. Over the phone, Sukhbir told me, “The MLA asked me, why are you doing this? What do you want? I told him I’m interested in saving the youth.” Over the weeks, the wind in favour of AAP has become Punjab’s new political intoxicant, to the extent that as its leader, Yogendra Yadav, cut a swathe through the state last week, he would ask people at various stops: “Who’s behind the drug racket?” The audience would scream the name of a powerful minister, who is popularly considered the patron of the drug racket. This anger was simmering even in the 2012 assembly elections, but the BJP-Akali Dal managed the elections better than the Congress to forge ahead by 1.77 per cent more votes, despite the alliance witnessing a sharp decline of 5.29 per cent from its 2007 vote-share. The anger stemmed then seems to have bubbled over now.

The hard-to-define hope AAP holds out in the misery sweeping the ‘land of plenty’ is the inspiration behind the catchy slogan that has become extremely popular: “Na bhukki ko, na daaru ko, vote denge jhaddu ko.” (Bhukki is the local name for opium husk.) AAP has become the beacon of hope because people know it isn’t in the interest of the existing political class to stem the supply of narcotics, says former police officer Shashi Kant, who as additional director-general of Intelligence fought the drug cartel. In 2007, Kant submitted a list of the powerful – politicians, police officers, even NGOs – entangled in the clandestine narcotics business to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. No action was taken, in complete disdain of the public knowledge that powerful politicians control the drug-trade.

In this ambience of deliberate inaction, AAP’s astonishing performance in the Delhi Assembly election stirred the beleaguered state. What also inspired its people is the AAP government’s crackdown on corruption and its decision to institute the SIT probe in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. For those accustomed to the betrayal of the political class, AAP appeared an outfit willing to walk the talk. Thus, the state which has had much of its history influenced by invasions from the north-west turned, for a change, to look south-east – Delhi – for determining its fate. “The state is on the path of revolution,” says Kant, who too joined AAP but is now nonplussed at the party’s reluctance to press him into the campaign built, to an extent, on the rampant drug abuse. “The party had no structure here. It has been erected overnight on the shoulders of young men who have persuaded their family elders to rally behind AAP. Even their candidates are not known.”

A few people I spoke to echo Kant, but did not wish to be named, fearing retaliation from the Akali Dal or the Congress. But Jitender Singh Bitta, a Living Media journalist in Amritsar, distils the AAP effect into one simple line: “Kejriwal has shown to the people that anything can be done, and everything is possible.” Does Bitta’s “anything can be done” include merely the eradication of narcotics from Punjab? Absolutely not, for substance abuse is also the symbol of Punjab’s economic slide, falling agriculture yield, rising unemployment, rampant corruption, the collapse of the government education and healthcare systems, and, beyond anything else, the crippling of the robust, optimistic Punjabi spirit, celebrated over the decades.

Social scientists differ over the precise provenance of drug abuse. On one aspect, though, they all agree – consumption of narcotics was a tradition in the state, and considered respectable. For the rich, opium was the preferred indulgence; for the poor, it was poppy husk, crushed and mingled with tea. The consumption received a fillip as the Green Revolution turned the state remarkably prosperous in the Seventies. It prompted drug cartels to push the contraband through the route used for smuggling gold. Over the years, the price for gold stabilized, and its smuggling was no longer lucrative, and drugs replaced the yellow metal as the principal commodity for generating illegitimate wealth.

Other developments, too, brought a spurt in the supply of drugs. For one, narcotics became an important mode for financing militancy. But a portion of the drugs brought into Punjab, says Kant, earmarked for Delhi and, ultimately, the West, was diverted to satiate the local demand. Militancy was rooted out, but not the smuggling of drugs, over which the politicians and the police, granted extraordinary powers to fight terrorism, gained control. Harish Puri, who retired as professor from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, prefers a socio-economic perspective to analyse the drug menace. He says the abuse is rampant in what is called the Malwa area of the state, notorious for its economic inequality – here the landlords, historically, owned sprawling estates, on which lower caste farmers worked as tenants. The Green Revolution enhanced the prosperity of the landlords, mostly living in towns and cities. Conspicuous consumption became a subculture, the use of drugs one of its manifestations.

In contrast, the lower castes didn’t get their appropriate share in the rising profits from agriculture. At the height of terrorism, Puri conducted a study of 28 villages, and found the level of education among them abysmal. Drugs and guns became their tools to overcome their deplorable condition, more so as they were virtually unemployable in other sectors. Ironically, the Seventies and Eighties saw lower castes, or mazhabi Sikhs, flock to village schools, from which upper castes began to withdraw, considering studying with lower castes below their dignity. Since the upper castes dominated village panchayats, schools were deprived of resources – and, therefore, ensued the collapse of the education system.

Over the next two decades, the diminishing returns from the Green Revolution, too, set in. The agricultural growth rate in Punjab has slowed down from 5 per cent in the 1980s to 1.9 per cent in the 2000s. Worse, a 2008 study conducted by Prof HS Shergill, of the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh, shows indebtedness has risen from 68 per cent in 1997 to 84 per cent in 2008, of which 17 per cent are in a debt trap, unable to pay even the interest. An official study found 42 per cent of groundwater in the state has saline and sodic elements, unfit for drinking or irrigation. Sixty per cent of Malwa’s water source is contaminated. Declining productivity impacts the tenant farmer severely, less so the landlords, who are anyway selling land and making a killing. Nevertheless, both are indulging in substance abuse: the neo-rich because they have enormous surplus cash in hand, the poor farmers because it makes the circle of hopelessness in which they are trapped tolerable. Says Puri, with a dash of dark humour, “In Punjab, one section of the youth is waiting for visas, the other for their next fix.”

Puri says people are reacting to their experience and gravitating towards AAP, as both the Congress and the Akali Dal-BJP are held responsible for the state’s woes. He, however, adds caveats, “There is tremendous goodwill for the party. But can it turn this goodwill into votes? Does it have the experience to manage booths? Also, I would want the AAP to spell out its policy framework.” Nevertheless, against this backdrop, it is bewildering to find the media obsessed with the cat-fight in Punjab, for instance reporting the daily pot-shots that Capt Amrinder Singh and Arun Jaitley take at each other. It underscores the banality of mainstream political discourse in a state slipping deeply into the mire of misery. After such knowledge, what meaning can politics have for the people? But to hope is to also retain your humanity, a subtext behind the surge of AAP in Punjab.