Punjab Polls: Electoral promises to the food bowl of Punjab
Ghee, sugar, tea, milk powder, meals besides already subsidised atta-dal constitute this year’s All Party manifesto for the Punjabi kitchen
Eyebrows were raised when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for Punjab this year promised, among other things, 2.5 kilos of ghee and sugar to be distributed free if the BJP-SAD coalition returned to power. Congress had earlier included free tea leaves and subsidised canteens in its own manifesto, while the Aam Aadmi Party had offered subsidised powder milk and meals.
While freebies announced before elections are by now familiar, offering ghee, milk and tea leaves appeared to border on the absurd. Especially so because Punjab is still considered the food bowl of the country, feeding the nation. There was some outrage as well with people complaining that the freebies made voters in Punjab look like impoverished beggars.
However Professor GS Garcha, who retired from Punjabi University, Patiala does not think these to be absurd. “Farm economy still thrives on physical labour, and milk, butter and ghee constitute their basic diet,” he points out. It’s a misconception outside Punjab, he says, that there is no dearth of milk and butter for Punjabis. The landless labour working on the land of big zamindars, don’t get ghee but chhachh (buttermilk) after butter is removed.
Stating that the poor farm labour do need ghee and dahi, the Professor said, “Only about 20% of farmers in Punjab have their own cattle and have enough of ghee and butter, but certainly not all.”
Moreover the farm worker is given a good diet by the land owners only as long as he is working on the farm, not throughout the year. “A peepa (canister) of ghee was the ultimate inaam or reward a farmer could expect from a landlord, in recognition of his good work; BJP is using the same language,” he explains.
“Farm economy still thrives on physical labour, and milk, butter and ghee constitute their basic diet. It’s a misconception outside Punjab that there is no dearth of milk and butter for Punjabis. The landless labour working on the land of big zamindars, don’t get ghee but chhachh (buttermilk) after butter is removed. Only about 20% of farmers in Punjab have their own cattle and have enough of ghee and butter, but certainly not all.”Professor GS Garcha
Does it not reflect a feudal mindset in which the democratically-elected Government uses public funds to create the illusion that it can conjure something out of thin air? “Since SAD had already promised atta-dal, BJP promised ghee for dal ka tadka,” comments a senior political analyst.
On a more serious note, he adds, “In past several elections we have witnessed voters being treated like either subjects or consumers being lured by discounts and freebies in the ‘sale season’ to the shopping mall of voting booths.”
Accusing political parties of robbing people’s self-respect, an analyst points out the irony of parties promising discounts and freebies, but no promise or a framework to allow people in general and farmers to prosper and stand on their own feet.
The subsidised atta-dal scheme was introduced by the Akalis in 2007, which offered Atta at ₹1 per kg and dal for ₹20 a kg for Blue card holders. The number of Blue card holders has grown from 16 lakh to 28 lakh over the years, and the number of beneficiaries is estimated at one crore.
With the subsidy promised on LPG by Congress, the kitchen manifesto for Punjab and Punjabis would seem to have come full circle.
Many voters seem to have a different take on the freebies. Satnam Singh, a farmer from Beas says, “Each party has promised waiving off the farm loan, I’m certainly more keen on free power and waiving off loans than free ration, but I’m not sure how they will manage to deliver; each one says something new and it’s already confusing.”