Creeping crisis: land, population and horizontal expansion in Punjab

Published May 17, 2021
The phenomenon is a direct outcome of the crisis agriculture faces which governance has failed to address.  — File
The phenomenon is a direct outcome of the crisis agriculture faces which governance has failed to address. — File

Traveling on asphalt roads is one of very reliable means of knowing and understanding what is happening in the contemporary Punjab.

Roads are equivalent of rivers of the ancient world. Roads support human settlement and facilitate movement in our times the way the rivers did in the pre-modern world. Harappa is on the bank of a river [Ravi/ Eravati] and it were waterways that helped traders from our land to do trade with Mesopotamia where Harappa seals have been found.

Crude replicas of modern settlement now can be seen anywhere and everywhere along the roads and highways. If you start out on your journey from Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, in any direction, north or west or south [You can make little headway towards east as Wagha border with India is now suburb of Lahore], you encounter the same phenomena. All along these intercity roads you endlessly see two distinct but interrelated things; petty businesses and newly carved out housing societies on fertile agricultural lands with ill-sounding pseudo modern names spelt wrongly in English. It’s dusty and dirty unending stretch of monotonous landscape dotted with horizontally built eyesores. By the time you hit the next city, you have already become blue in the face after sighting so many monstrosities made of mud and bricks.

Now the question is: why the intercity roads are thronging with people especially with the poor from the countryside? The phenomenon is a direct outcome of the crisis agriculture faces which governance has failed to address.

With the passage of time the land holdings have shrunk as a result of division of land with each coming generation. Medium size holdings have turned in small ones making the farming on them economically unviable. Small holdings, even large ones, in the age of mechanised agriculture employ a few hands in a rural society that traditionally prizes large family, a vestige of times when manual work required greater number of hands. The traditional practice of having large family did twofold function; it supplied workers for labour intensive farming and also provided a sense of security that state, whatever its composition, had never been able to do in our part of the world.

Coming to the governance side, one realises that with increased focus on urban centres and shoddy industrial production - which has no buyer in the international market - countryside and agriculture have cruelly been neglected by concerned departments and successive governments. The consequences have been dire. Agriculture needs help in terms of availability of improved inputs at affordable prices, unadulterated pesticide and spray, subsidies and support price for crops. Additionally it needs reduction in multiple taxes under which it groans like an over-loaded donkey. Babus in suits and waist-coats ensconced in their posh offices who make policies along with politicians, indifferent to the plight of the farmers, conveniently forget that if this country averts mass starvation, it’s because of its half-naked peasants. Their fields, in the words of Waris Shah, are ‘aflame’. Who will douse the fire that metaphor refers to? No rescuer is in sight at the moment.

Members of rural community with their lingering doubts regarding small family continue breeding like rabbits. Finding farming unviable and no employment they, unskilled or semi-skilled, throng the roads and highways to eke out living which subsequently have turned into substandard dusty workshops and shanties heavy with overhanging stench of chaotic mess. While driving you can see a lot of village idiots sitting on rickety benches to kill time. Grinning vacuously they sip their unbearably sweet tea counting the vehicles that whiz past them. They do it day after day without an iota of boredom or weariness as if it’s a productive practice.

And now the rural rich! Since they find farming no longer lucrative, they have stopped self-cultivation or leasing out their lands that are close to highways or roads. Population explosion has opened new avenues for them to do a profitable business. Real estate is currently the most lucrative commercial activity which doesn’t require hard work and is the least risky. Proposed housing societies bearing funnily weird names line all highways and roads with land parceled out into plots to build houses on. Most of them though are a work in progress due to the prices of plots irrationally hiked up. Most of these societies are short-term projects designed to make a quick buck. The paradox is that with an increase in population the number of buyers hasn’t gone up which is otherwise thought to be a natural outcome of such a process. On the contrary the number has plummeted. People need shelter but don’t have deep pockets in an economy which is extremely extractive and predatory in nature as it neither rewards traditional hard work nor values modern knowledge generation, the things that can set life in contemporary society on an even keel. That’s perhaps the reason that most of such housing societies present a deserted look and make you unnerved with what resembles the eeriness of an empty town.

Michael Williams writes in his paper “The enclosure and reclamation of waste land in England and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”: “The objects of enclosure were to make farming more efficient and productive. In the open fields the need was to redistribute and amalgamate the fragmented holdings into compact farms that were easier to work--”. Here on the contrary, particularly in the Punjab, one can observe the process in reverse as the traditionally compact farms are turning into fragmented holdings. Commoners in the countryside in Britain saw the enclosure eating the pasture while here people see real estate eating the fields. The difference is that by expanding the arable land, the act increased agricultural production in the Britain while here we decrease our agricultural production by turning large chunks of our fertile land into residential properties not caring that nothing grows on stone and concrete. But the creep of housing societies that shrinks our countryside doesn’t disconcert our panjandrums. To salvage the fraught situation what we urgently need to do is to put an end to further fragmentation of agricultural land and to say emphatic no to horizontal expansion of cities and towns. But who will revisit the policy which is in reality lack of policy? The lack of policy suits the ruling class which can’t abide the thought of following the laws enacted by their own representatives. So who will “dare disturb the universe” where the powerful are free to make a fast buck with minimum fuss? Let’s not forget nature will intervene if we don’t. The problem will be intractable if we let the grass grow under our feet. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2021

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