By Lavanya Shivashankar

Punjab has, for a long time, been one of the most prosperous states in the country. Also called the breadbasket of India, Punjab provides nearly 50% of the food grains (wheat and paddy) that India consumes, despite occupying just 1.5% of India's total area. Though it is no longer among the top ten states by GDP, its biggest strength remains a steady GDP growth rate of approximately 5% through the decades. 

This steady GDP growth has been attributed to a hard-working, cheerful population and a determined focus on building gold standard infrastructure and continually improving agriculture. Punjabis makeup about 12% of the Indian Military and have earned laurels for the country in every field possible, from genetics to entertainment and even in the area of policymaking.

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Punjab goes to poll on May 19. At stake is the governance of chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh pitted against the legacy and role of the Badals in the central government. Though there are only 13 seats at stake, the state is of paramount importance because of its sensitive border location and primacy in agriculture. Of the 13 states, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) fought on 10 seats in 2014 and won four, while the BJP fought on three, won two, then lost a by-poll to the Congress. The AAP and the Congress won four seats each. 

These elections are essential for many reasons. Despite a confident showing (78 out of 117 assembly seats) at the hustings in 2017, Captain Amarinder is clear that ministers will be dropped from the Congress government if they dither in ensuring that the Congress wins in their respective constituencies. He has also warned MLAs who are similarly dragging their feet. They will not be given tickets, he said.
The Captain is a canny politician. Despite belonging to a party that is reluctant to acknowledge Balakot, and is duly bashing the SAD-BJP alliance, he retains popularity and respect for his openly pro-military, pro-India stance in a sensitive state. He also moved the Kartarpur Corridor resolution in the Punjab Assembly, and successfully petitioned the central leadership of both India and Pakistan to go ahead with the plans of allowing Indian pilgrims visa-free visits to the holy place of Sikhism. 

The Akalis have both Mr and Mrs Badal in the field; he is from Ferozepur and her from Bhatinda. The BJP is fielding candidates in Gurdaspur (Sunny Deol), Amritsar (Hardeep Singh Puri), and Hoshiarpur (Som Prakash), and has already faced cries of "parachuting outsiders" from its rank and file. Whatever their fate, these elections are also crucial because Punjab needs to have a stronger voice in parliament to cross off two critical issues on its list - the agriculture trap and pesticide menace as well as rampant drug usage.

Also read: Punjab CM Amarinder Singh: Will not back out on promise of action in sacrilege cases

The Malwa region of Punjab has had toxic heavy metals leaching to the water table, and affecting the health of all citizens, including causing autism in kids. Studies have linked unusually high rates of cancer in this cotton-growing area to the use of pesticides by cotton farmers. According to reports, Bhatinda's cancer institute has seen the number of cancer patients rise from 6,233 in 2016 to 10,648 in 2018. 

It's not state of the art yet, so a special train to Rajasthan - colloquially referred to, as the Cancer Train - takes patients to speciality hospitals across the border. The Badals launched the Mukhyamantri Punjab Cancer Rahat Kosh Scheme in 2014, which by 2016, had provided relief to over 22,744 patients, of Rs 1.5 lakh to enable cashless treatment of cancer in empanelled private and public hospitals. More needs to be done to ban harmful pesticides and sale of spurious cotton seeds rigorously.

Captain boasts of having disbursed loan waivers of Rs 4,736 crore, while the Prime Minister directed transfer of the first instalment of Rs 6,000 crore annual financial assistance for farmers. They had been promised a complete loan waiver, but in the style of the Congress poll shenanigans, that was a promise never meant to be kept. The waiver is for farmers with income up to, and below, Rs 2 lakh. 

Farm labourers and artisans are ignored because the Punjab government waives off loans of primary agriculture co-operative service societies. Total farm debt in Punjab is about Rs 1 lakh crore, and the Amarinder Government is unlikely to waive off even 10% of the total debt. 

As if this weren't enough, enter the favourite villain of India's cash crop farmers. Sugarcane dues were demanded with 15% interest by farmers who were on strike, and harassed by banks for loan repayment. State sugarcane mills, owned mostly by politicians, owe Rs 122 crore to sugarcane producers since the last crop season. Temporary relief was given to them by the Punjab Cabinet viz Rs 25 per quintal which was directly into their accounts, out of a state agreed price (SAP) of Rs 310, which the mills would pay. 

For their part, farmers from a predominantly agricultural state should expand their demands to include a focus on healthcare, education, clean drinking water, and social security. Farmers and farm labourers who face a rising land to man ratio and mechanisation have no means, or the required information, to expose their children to higher education or skill training. In almost 70% of the households in rural Punjab, there are no matriculates. This number rises to 90% for farm labourers. 

Combine lagging income with low education levels, and limited opportunities for upliftment and that leads to the severe problem Punjab is facing currently – a rural drug crisis. 

The average image of a Punjabi in the mind of a regular Indian is of a tall, strapping hulk of a man, rather like the Deol father and sons. But many households in rural Punjab are struggling with a heroin problem. Punjabi music has been blamed for promoting drugs and guns culture among aspirational rural youth. The state and central governments are equally worried about Pakistan pumping drugs illegally in the state. 

For a critical border state with extensive military recruitment, this is akin to formal war strategy. More than 42 lakh people are estimated to require help for drug dependence, which makes up 20% of Punjab's total population — studied and documented in the 'National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India' focusing on ages between 10 and 75 years, which in itself is an alarming situation. 

Congress had made a pre-poll commitment that if elected, they would stop drug supply, distribution and consumption within four weeks. Two years after this key manifesto promise for 2017 Assembly Elections, more than 50% of villages and urban wards continue to be menaced by drugs. Unless newly elected representatives aren't determined to wipe out this menace and show their real intent towards voters, troubling times will continue. 

A survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), said that the top three priorities of urban voters in Punjab are water and air pollution, better hospitals and primary health care centres. 

The BJP is betting big on its good track record on military strikes in a land that's big on patriotism, service and sacrifice. BJP hopes that the positive sentiment that is showing up for them in pre-poll survey translates into seats for the SAD, their ally. Border seats like Ferozepur and Khandoor Sahib are expected to vote for the SAD candidates riding the nationalist wave. 

There are around 13 lakh voters in Punjab who are above the age of 70. To pander to their needs, Captain raised the social security pension from Rs 500 to Rs 750. It remains to be seen if this move will work.

The Captain is going all out on diversity, inclusivity, and subtle communalisation of issues, locking steps with the Congress strategy across the country. The SAD and the BJP are raking up two years' worth of overhyped, and subsequently broken promises. In three key seats, it's BJP's Nationalism versus the Captain's Nationalism.

Punjab is now in the grip of falling incomes, poor health and education facilities, rising drug use and lawlessness. Whoever wins, the need of the moment is serious efforts aimed at solving the socio-economic problems plaguing an independent state which was once the torchbearer of India's national interest and social reform.