Punjab: ‘Those who live in border areas are extremely backward’

Abeer Kapoor Delhi 

Professor Jagroop Singh Sekhon is the head of department of the political science department at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and has undertaken several studies on the border that Punjab shares with Pakistan. In conversation with Hardnews, he talks about the history of the border, the underdevelopment, and the major concerns peculiar to the area

Could you talk us through the main issues that are at stake at the border? 

One of the projects we undertook was to understand the problems faced by farmers due to fencing at the border. This border is unnatural, man-made and politically-driven. The fencing project began in 1987, but was stopped intermittently because of issues that Pakistan raised, but carried on 1989 onwards.

In the late ’70s when the terrorism and militancy problem began, the involvement of Pakistan was clear and the border was built as a reaction to that. The fence encloses large amounts of land of farmers, causing much distress. The border belt stretches for 16 km and extends for 562 km in Punjab along three districts.

The border that India shares with Pakistan in the Punjab is an extremely volatile border, unlike the Line of Control in Kashmir. There is a fear attached to the border; with successive wars and other incidents, many people have left. There are 279 villages at the border on paper. Only 221 exist, with people living there. Of these, 58 have witnessed mass evacuation because of the Partition and post-Partition incidents. 

One must understand that the people who live in these areas are extremely backward. During our research we have found that the population growth is very different from the rest of Punjab. It is lower in the border areas than in the rest of the state. Each border district has different social groups. Those living in Amritsar will be extremely different from those in Firozpur, but the underdevelopment is common.  

One village in Firozepur is surrounded by Pakistani villages on three sides. There are many like this. You have to take Border Security Force (BSF) permission to even access these villages. 

There seems to be entrenched underdevelopment. What are the causes and outcomes? 

The main cause of the underdevelopment  is the narrative of security and the building up of the border. The politicians, one after another, only care for security and not development. In 2001, after the Parliament attack, soldiers were stationed at the border which led to the evacuation of a large number of people from
the border. 

We must also understand what sort of people live on the border. It is the residue that is left behind after migration. It is that set of people who have been left behind by the green revolution, who still live in mud huts and don’t have any alternative. Wave after wave left during the terrorism, and then those who earned their share during the green revolution. Left behind are those who just couldn’t leave.

The institutions have broken down, literacy is low and there are very few jobs. Punjab is No. 22 in the country in terms of literacy. If the state shows a low literacy rate, the border areas will be even lower. The parameters of the Human Development Index are also low. The most crippling part of this is that they have no means of vocalising their concerns. In our research we have found that the education level in the border areas in Punjab is far lower than even Jharkhand.

 The decline of the Left and the complete absence of student elections contributed to absence of a voice for the politically disaffected and marginalised. This seems to continue.   

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2016