Punjab is in the Tube: by Pashaura Singh Dhillon
Punjab Cries for a New Perspective on the Environment
The Land of five rivers, Punjab, bears witness to one of the oldest, if not the oldest civilizations in the world, where man first brought the land under the plough. That little identity called the ‘kisani’ in Punjabi, kept the civilization ticking for over 5000 years. Frequently addressed as ‘aam aadmi’ by all shades of politicians these days, these folks trying to survive in the villages with many already driven into the cities or left for unknown lands had a better name in the past called ‘Reehar di haddi’ meaning back bone (spine) of the country. What can be a greater ironic tragedy of all times, than watching this “aam aadmi” being pushed out of existence in its own habitat, and in front of our very eyes? From 80%, the population of kisans (farmers) or related to Kisani, living in the villages of Punjab is already down to 54%. From the ongoing trend it appears that the majority population will soon be driven from the countryside and trapped in the towns and cities becoming conurbations before we know it, akin to a body gone top heavy with no spine! Many people quickly point their fingers in several directions, as if blaming these things rationalizes what is happening to farmers not only in Punjab, but all over India. Farmers control what we put into our bodies and have an enormous impact on the physical environment in which they operate starting with the seeds and pesticides that they use. There are other aspects to environmental concern, such as the loss of native habitat and cultural landmark trees such as the Pipal and the Bohr. These trees carried with them a culture where people would congregate under them to socialize or as the youngsters these days say, “hang out.”
Many people view the root cause of it all to the Green Revolution, which brought genetically modified seeds to yield larger quantities of food, but also created an alien environment for many small time farmers: they weren’t used to spending so much money on chemicals and giving up their seeds at the end of a harvest to plant new crops. Traditional farmers reused seeds and didn’t need to spend so much money on buying new seeds, pesticides or that intense investment in capital and labor. To combat these expenses, companies such as U.S. based Monsanto which specializes in genetically modified seeds and pesticides have cropped up.
Monsanto even keeps tabs on farmers who reuse their seeds and go after them with lawyers. Interestingly enough, in Iowa a professional seed cleaner, a relic of the past, had to give up his job because he was harassed by lawyers from Monsanto. The skyrocketing expenses connected with farming also gave rise to unregulated loan sharks that charge farmers exorbitant interest rates that the farmer is inevitably unable to pay, but desperately needs resulting in debts and suicides. Our definition of progress needs a little reworking. So far, the change that has taken place comes through this so-called progress, which also meant the destruction of what was in its place before. A better word for this kind of progress is a total replacement.
In my own generation, I watched the Persian wheel irrigating farmland with its earthen pitchers (Mitti deeaan tindaan) and wooden mechanism driven by oxen. This was in turn replaced by metal buckets, wrought iron mechanisms with ball bearings as I was growing up. The things moved so fast and so out of control since then that in no time it seems, shallow and shallower tube wells which replaced the Persian Wheel went deeper and deeper which are currently being replaced by submersible pumps sucking water up to and beyond 500 feet beneath the surface. The proud land of five rivers has now become so water deficit that the deepest of the deep bore holes are running dry after a couple years, bankrupting the farmers especially threatening the small family farm. This is just one aspect of the environment and there are stories of this nature abound. Elsewhere I also watched the man landing on the moon, perhaps in search of more water!
What makes the Sikh faith so unique is that it is steeped in logic. We don’t believe that God created the Earth in so many days, or rivers out of thin air. It is a universal faith and philosophy because it is clear on the origins of the universe and doesn’t pretend to know when it will simply end. There are many verses in the Guru Granth Sahib that tell us evolution through which this universe has evolved also meant change, but the natural processes that watched this evolutionary change, survived for millions of years. And by keeping the transitional connections somewhat alive help us today in connecting the dots, trying to understand and know more about the phenomenon. Since man has now replaced nature as a major agent of change and got his grip on the wheel (more or less), he cannot stop the wheel turning no doubt but with long term planning and wise technology he can learn to steer it better and steer it safely.
Judging by the direction, the aforementioned ‘aam aadmi’ is being lured to go, and the continuing trend beyond, I wrote two poems, ‘Piplan de sung Bohrr Gva Lei’… and ‘Umber di Shehzadi de Naa’ years ago. Talking about these very issues, both are available on my site under audio download at: www.pashaurasinghdhillon.com
The other day, my son Navdeep Singh Dhillon who teaches college level English in New York, sent me an interesting music video ‘Kikran,Tahlian,Berian’ by a popular Punjabi satirist comedian /singer, Bhagwant Mann. Appropriately, the video starts with Surjit Patar’s sher on Punjab, recited by Patar sahib himself, which when translated from Punjabi to English, while it loses all of its poetic Patar essence, means something like this:
. . . All birds flew away from here,
Monsoons made a U-turn there.
Even trees now secretly plan here,
To go elsewhere, any place, anywhere!
In order to stem the tide of environmental degradation under our very nose, anything said, sung or spoken to raise awareness, amongst our not so fond of reading people, must be appreciated, encouraged, shared and popularized at every level. Surjit Patar, from his high pedestal as one of the leading thinking poets alive, is well positioned to do that. And he has done a wonderful job in introducing this useful work of art in the form of this musical video presented artfully by dedicated Bhagwant Mann.
Having said that, it is not quite as accurate as Patar suggests. According to his introduction of this, everything ever written or spoken about Punjab prior to this video, are all lies and nobody before Mann told the truth about Punjab? Even his own sher translated above, reiterates this point. Since environmental degradation is a nationwide phenomenon, Patar himself along with others, (though not many), which include some writers, journalists, poets and a handful of community activists both in north and south India, have reported the true picture nationwide many a time. Umendra Dutt of the Kheti Virasat has painstakingly brought some serious data to light. Jaswant Singh Kanwal, Kuldip Nayar, and Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, to name a few , have written numerous articles to raise alarms from time to time about the near breakdown of Punjabiat and Punjabi culture in Punjab, which is a victim of the same overall mindset falling under the overall umbrella of the term environment.
With a background dealing in the environmental matters, and having spent over thirty-years working as a landscape architect around half the world, I fail to see a comprehensive environmental policy ever conceived or being enforced statewide. In a fast changing scene for road widening schemes just to take one example in this respect, it has a major impact on its flora and fauna including man. In layman’s terms, there is no evidence of a compensatory tree plantation plan in action for these major ecological corridors that remain, for the bird and insect life as the last refuge in Punjab. And no relief or consideration for the activities of communities severed by these so called highways, which have the same impact as rivers if not more dangerous and disruptive for the affected communities.
According to many newspaper articles, century old trees are being axed under road widening schemes without proper alternate route studies and alignment options fully explored. Not long ago I read an article by Rashmi Talwar in The Tribune, Chandigarh, aptly titled “Century-old tree cut in the name of commercialism." Environmental Impact Assessment reports based on alternate route studies or development options, which ought to be properly carried out by the professionals, fully explained to the affected communities, concerned parties, and made public under the Right to Information Act (RTI) are rarely adhered to in countries like India, especially in Punjab. Consequently, planting of replacement trees, which ought to be organized before the felling or axing should begin, hardly catches up even years later. The native trees such as Tahli, Kikkar, Neem, Pipal, Bohrr, Kherr and others are replaced by fast growing species such as Eucalyptus and Poplar for quick effect. This may look good for the overflying politician in a helicopter in the short term but it creates an environment offering no refuge and little solace for the insect and the dependent bird life.
Only recently, I had the chance to discuss some of these issues with S. Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal, who was visiting California at S. Charanjit Singh Batth’s residence near Woodward Lake in Fresno. His views on this subject were not new and mirrored what was often said by others in high positions, which seems to be the general consensus: First, let India catch up to other countries in terms of technology, industry, and food. Then worry about the environmental damage. But getting up to speed for a nation delayed is one thing and is perfectly understandable for the respective governments to show to its people the quick results. But hoping to coming back and clean up the mess left behind later is an unrealistic goal. How can a century old bohrr (banyan) tree be uncut?
As the term environment is not confined to the wellbeing of birds and trees alone. Included in this flora and fauna is the wellbeing of a people, their culture and their way of life by being more productive and more prosperous. How do we reverse the effects of air pollution and ill health caused by air polluting vehicles, or industrial waste in our rivers and ending up deep down into the aquifers by companies held unaccountable for their actions? There are, of course, steps that can be taken in the right direction after the fact in some cases, but many environmental problems such as groundwater pollution are simply irreversible.
It is not that the true picture has not been painted before the release of Mann’s video. The more poignant question to ask is where do we go from here? We need to check out this commonly believed myth that caring for the environment and catching up to other countries in terms of technology, industry and providing food for our people are somehow incompatible. If ignoring the environmental concerns speeds up the progress then we would not have reached this passé as is reported in her latest article, I read in the Tribune by Jayshree Sengupta February 27, 2011 in which she writes, “ Today in terms of GDP growth, India seems to be doing better than most other countries and the government expects around 9 per cent growth in the next one year. But is this growth translating itself into rural jobs? Is it benefiting the ‘aam admi”? And the answer does not seem to be encouraging.
In view of the above no government or its bureaucracy should remain in denial or wait to see Punjab crying out louder to realize the urgency of a potent environmental policy for Punjab. Giving speeches, writing articles, poems or releasing videos highlighting issues may not provide answers but they certainly help raise awareness to ask serious questions towards important issues such as this. Translating them into actions, changing the national mindset and to implement those actions can only be achieved through appropriate government policies and its enforcement. The same person having finished his bottle of Coca Cola throws his empty, out of the window in one country, whereas he looks for a proper garbage disposal in another. A change in the mind set of a nation as someone wrote is a process, not an event. And that can only be brought about through education and appropriate governmental policies and its enforcement. In the case of India and especially Punjab, the sooner we stop treating the environmental issues as events and start the process for a comprehensive Environmental Plan through our education system and governmental policies, the better!