Tuesday, April 23, 2024

How Green was My Countryside

Two generations of the state’s farmers have gone through immense hardships. The agrarian crisis has also changed the countryside, which is no longer green.

By Justice Kamaljit Singh Garewal

Once upon a time, not very long ago, on a sparsely populated plateau, there existed hamlets and homesteads inhabited by small farmers, shepherds and artisans. Their land was of poor quality, uneven, stony and prone to erosion by seasonal rivulets. The nearby hills were densely wooded and abounded in game. Water from artesian wells fulfilled their basic needs and crops were largely rain-fed. There was no electricity for homes or farms, neither free nor metered. Some rudimentary form of water harvesting was practiced and this valuable resource was not wasted. Everyone lived simple and uncomplicated lives.

Progress came in 1952 in the shape of the Chandigarh Capital Project, to take the place of Lahore as the capital of new Punjab. Monsieur Le Corbusier took over planning and things began to change. The villagers were displaced after receiving a few hundred rupees per acre as compensation and left without demur. The plateau got transformed into a planned and well laid-out city of spacious bungalows, gardens, parks and markets, but one perennially short of water.

Chandigarh and its peripheral towns and villages are now home to nearly three million people, far beyond the planned expectations of Le Corbusier. The city possesses two siblings, Mohali to its south-west and Panchkula to its south-east. This urban agglomeration was never a part of the original plan. It has now earned the inelegant epithet of Tri-City, spreading to about 25 km on all sides from its centre.

The city’s eastern flank is covered by the Western Army, headquartered at Chandi Mandir. Between the city and Chandi Mandir lies Mansa Devi and Mani Majra. Beyond the planned residential areas lie shanty colonies housing poor working class migrant labour, easterners from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, displaced by poverty in their own states. Towards the city’s western and northern borders is the unplanned, cluttered poor quarter, a pseudo-suburbia of some of the original villages which have lost their rustic charm and beauty.

After these slums lies New Chandigarh, yet another ambitious development project, to completely strangle Corbusier’s dream, and convert it into a nightmare with its dozens of high rise 20 storey behemoths.

From the periphery of the city stretches the great Punjab plain, gently sloping southwest where the five rivers, together with the river that gave India its name, Indus, flow towards the sea. To the city’s south is Haryana, all the way down the Grand Trunk Road, past the battlefields of Kurukshetra and Panipat, between the Jamuna and the Thar, up to the national capital and beyond. Haryana bounds Delhi on three sides, just as Punjab bounds Chandigarh, leaving just a tiny corridor to connect the city with Haryana.

Undeniably, it is the impressive mountainous backdrop which has not changed. The Kasauli range has stood out in bold relief since time immemorial, keeping an eye on the city and watching it grow from a sleepy little town to a vibrant urban centre of government, business, commerce, health and education. The profile of the hill etches out a line on a graph and is something no visitor to the city can forget.

However, over the years, the hill has been denuded of its forest cover, its stately oaks, dense deodars and cheel pines. Illegal felling and forest fires have been taking a regular toll on these once lovely forests. The atmosphere has become hazy with dust and pollutants, both industrial and vehicular. There was a time when pollution was non-existent, the hills were green and provided a clear view of themselves. Even the snowcapped Churdhar in Sirmour and the Dhauladhar in Kangra would be visible on clear days. From the hilltops, one could clearly see a well-laid-out city below. This is no longer possible.

The countryside in which Chandigarh came up is gone for good. The call of the partridge, the dance of the peacock, the sight of hare stunned by car lights and the howl of jackals at night are neither seen nor heard anymore.

Historically and geographically, Punjab was always defined and referred to as the land of five rivers, between the Indus and the Jamuna. Beyond the Indus lay the land of the Pathans and beyond the Jamuna, the plains of Hindustan. In between was South Punjab (now Haryana). To the north was Shimla and the Hill States (now Himachal Pradesh), and further to the north-west were the principalities of Bilaspur, Mandi, Kangra, Chamba and Jammu. Deeper in the mountains lay the Vale of Kashmir, Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu and Ladakh.

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Punjab had been the defender of the Gangetic plains, defender of the faith as it were. During the invasions of India through the Khyber, the invader would first be confronted at the Indus and finally at Panipat (50 miles north of Delhi). The boundaries never remained stable in the defense of Hindustan as Punjab was repeatedly subjugated by invading armies.

After the Afghans were finally vanquished in 1799, Punjab’s boundaries began to achieve a sense of permanence. With the Mughals weakening and the Marathas retreating, the British Company became influential in Delhi. This led to Ranjit Singh and the Company agreeing to treat the Sutlej as the boundary between their respective areas of influence. Punjab remained confined between the Sutlej and the Indus but went right up to the mountains to Tibet and Sinkiang.

However in 1849, the boundaries of Punjab melted away when the Company conquered and annexed Punjab. So after a tumultuous decade, Punjab again experienced a sort of colonial stability till 1947. The Punjab province extended from the Indus to the Aravalis, taking even Delhi and present Haryana and Himachal in its embrace. In the south-west, Punjab stretched up to Multan, the confluence of the Indus and the Sutlej, and in the east up to the Jamuna. After Partition in 1947, re-organisation in 1956 added the erstwhile princely states to Punjab. Further re-organisation in 1966 created Haryana and Chandigarh and hived off Himachal Pradesh too. The truncated Punjab we have today is a fraction of the Punjab of our history books.

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Land reform policies repeatedly reduced permissible land holdings from 50 acres per person post-Partition to displaced persons in 1947 to 30 acres per person in 1953. This was further reduced to seven hectares per family of five in 1972 and finally, to 1,500 sq yards around cities under the Urban Ceiling Act. This meant that families which had large holdings were reduced to possessing small unviable portions of what they had originally held, not counting the reduction due to generational successions. When policymakers say that the average land holdings of four out of five families is two hectares and below they are spot on.

A word on the so-called Green Revolution shall complete the picture. When Punjab was re-organised in 1966, the speed of cultivation of high yielding varieties of wheat was actually picking up. Food production kept rising, leading to surpluses, which were put in the public distribution system and enabled India to attain self-sufficiency. This also made farmers prosperous. But their prosperity could not remain hidden from New Delhi’s policymakers. In a few years, the new land ceiling laws were clamped in 1972, obviously because the earlier land reforms of 1950s had failed to deliver the desired results. This promise of socialism slaughtered the goose which laid the golden egg. Farmers had no choice at that time. They continued to sow wheat on their tiny holdings, to be harvested in spring. Cotton, maize and sugarcane were the autumn crops. Around 1975, these were replaced by water-guzzling paddy as the autumn crop.

The cost of production and living kept rising steadily while the minimum support price (MSP) was fixed at very low unremunerative levels. This is where we were when the three laws were passed in September 2020. These laws looked at agriculture from the market stand-point, which was diametrically opposed to that of the farmers. Hence, the year-long protest during which the free marketers failed to convince the down-to-earth farmers. With the withdrawal of the three laws we are back to square one and are now looking around for permanent solutions to agricultural profitability after decades of agrarian distress.

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The sad part is that two generations of farmers have gone through such hardships that no one can compensate them for what they lost in terms of missed opportunities. It’s not worth delving into the recent past, but a few fault-lines have become visible in Punjab owing to the looming agrarian crisis. There is a deep desire in the youth to escape to the West for greener pastures because they find themselves unable to get decent education and jobs. Frustration drives some to heavy drinking and hard drugs. Farmers, in order to save crops from pests, spray pesticides in such quantity that poison has leached into the soil, polluting sub-soil water reserves. The water level itself has depleted due to excessive irrigation of paddy fields. The village support system in which the landowners took care of the landless in times of need also disappeared when landowners sold off their unprofitable holdings and moved to cities.

The landscape of the Punjab countryside is changing fast. The colours of the seasons, the lush green and golden fields, the trees on roads and canals shall disappear and soon we shall discover that nature’s green sheen has gone forever.

—The writer is former judge, Punjab & Haryana High Court, Chandigarh and former judge, United Nations Appeals Tribunal, New York


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