A university is often judged by the students it produces and the faculty it employs, and by both these standards, Punjab University has a lot to be proud of. Its distinguished alumni include eminent scientists such as the Nobel Laureate Dr Hargobind Khurana, and Dr Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, the first Chairman of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of India. As for the quality of its faculty, Punjab University, Chandigarh has a very special significance, especially for economists, because this is where our Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh started his teaching career, more than fifty years ago.
Let me offer my heartiest congratulations to the graduating students and award winners of this fine university. As you step out of the protected environment in which you are guided, trained and assisted by your teachers, and as you engage with the outside world, you will face numerous challenges. The education that you have received and the value system that you have nurtured will be the assets that you will draw upon as you respond to the challenges. In one way or the other, life keeps teaching us as we take up new assignments, build new relationships, face new situations, and respond to new challenges.
I would like to take this opportunity to speak to you about the challenges of economic and social development in Punjab. Any response to these challenges must recognize the importance of two factors, globalization and federalism. As the Indian economy integrates with the world economy in a sure and steady manner, it throws up new opportunities as well as new challenges. We in Punjab will have to seize the opportunities and make the necessary adjustments to exploit the same to our advantage. Second, as our democracy takes deeper roots and federalism is practised and respected, all states including Punjab will have to share the responsibilities of development with local governments and Panchayats, and civil society will also have to play an important role in shaping the process of development.
Punjab is one of the richest states in India although it is no longer the richest. It has the lowest incidence of poverty of any state, with 8.4 per cent of its population in poverty, compared with 27.5 per cent for the country as a whole. It has the smallest proportion of children who are underweight – 27 per cent – compared with 45.9 per cent for India as a whole. Yet, Punjab suffers from some serious deficiencies in social development.
Educational infrastructure in Punjab is among the best of Indian states, but learning achievements at primary and upper primary levels are among the worst, as revealed by some recent nationwide surveys conducted by the NCERT. Punjab does not lack infrastructure facilities for health, but the health outcomes are not commensurate with the relatively high level of income of the state because of the very poor and ill-administered systems of health delivery. In the matter of gender discrimination, I regret to say that Punjab has acquired a particularly negative image because of the prevalence of female foeticide. But we must not lose hope. The recent experience of change that was brought about in the Nawanshahar district in the child sex ratio is an outstanding example of what can be done through determined effort.
Punjab had a glorious record of the growth of 5 per cent per annum in the three decades of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. By contrast, the Indian economy at that time was growing at a slow and stagnant growth rate of 3 ½ per cent per annum in the first two decades and caught up with Punjab’s performance only in the 1980s. Punjab ushered in the green revolution in the country in the late 1960s, and agriculture was the principal driver of growth in the state up to the end of the 1980s. The agrarian focus in Punjab, however, meant that the development of a sound industrial strategy did not find favour with the policymakers.
Ironically, Punjab’s slowdown in economic growth in the 1990s coincided with the period when the Government of India launched a process of wide-ranging economic reforms opening the economy to imports as well as domestic competition to provide larger scope to the private sector to generate growth in the economy. Unlike many other states which caught on to the new orientation, and started gearing up their administrative machinery to attract private investment in industry, Punjab failed to take advantage of the new industrial opportunities that were opening up.
In making up for a lost time, Punjab has to improve its investment climate, build on its existing strength of infrastructure, and develop the skills needed for supporting the process of industrialization in the state. Institutions of higher learning have an important role to play in this process. The National Institute of Biotechnology, Institute of Nano Technology, and Public Health Foundation of India are coming to Punjab. As the Government of India is gearing up to set up 30 new Central Universities in the country, Punjab must attract at least two Central Universities in the state. We must attract Centers of Excellence, an IIT, an IIM, and a National Law School. Institutes of higher learning and research are crucial for building a knowledge base which in turn is crucial for global competitiveness and provides a basis for sustainable growth and development in the state.
There has been a severe deterioration in the natural resource base of Punjab over the years. Punjab has the highest percentage of groundwater exploitation in the country. Out of the 141 development blocks, over 85 per cent are now classified as “over-exploited”. The irrational pricing of power and water has led to increased cultivation of paddy, and overuse of water.
Crop diversification is the need of the hour. In particular, Punjab needs to diversify away from paddy. Research must be directed at better and more robust seeds for high-value crops. Institutional mechanisms need to be put in place for risk mitigation for these crops. Modern infrastructure facilities need to be set up for the storage, transporting and marketing of the crops. A recent attempt at amending the Agricultural Produce Marketing Act failed because of the vested interests of the established intermediaries, but this crucial hurdle must be overcome. Modernization of retail services offers a new set of tremendous opportunities for diversifying into high-value crops. An important part of the solution of reviving agricultural growth will have to come from an industrial strategy which builds synergies with the agricultural sector. The promotion of agro-based industries must be an important component of the industrial strategy of Punjab.