Beyond the News - FACT Analysis

Punjab’s border area economy in shambles

Harjab Aujla, Senior Advisor to The Fact News

I spent a few days of 2020 in the border areas of Punjab viz Ferozepur, Tarn Taran, Kapurthala and Amritsar districts. This is before Covid-19 hit India. The people of this belt were visibly unhappy. Problems in Ferozepur are chronic, created by its location right on the border and its shrinking size, after three other districts namely Muktsar, Moga and Fazilka were carved out of it.

This city used to flourish under the British. In geographical area Ferozepur and Hisar were the largest districts in the plains.

In the population of course both Lahore and Amritsar were larger.

After the 1966 trifurcation of Punjab, the successive governments ignored Ferozepur. One chief minister created a new district at Faridkot by taking away two tehsils of Muktsar and Moga out of it. Another CM converted Muktsar tehsil into a full fledged district. Subsequently, Moga was also made a district. During the last regime, even Fazilka tehsil was converted into a new district. Originally Ferozepur was a district of sixteen assembly constituencies, now it is down to four viz. Zeera, Ferozepur Urban, Ferozepur Rural and Guru Har Sahai.

Prior to 1947, the people of Ferozepur used to visit Lahore 50 miles away and Amritsar 60 miles away for administrative and business purposes, now it goes to Chandigarh nearly 140 miles away and Ludhiana 76 miles away. There will be a ray of hope, if Amritsar is re-linked by rail with Ferozepur via Patti, but this link has become a political football between the Central and the state governments. The Centre wanted Punjab to acquire the land, Punjab has agreed to pay but pleads no money. When completed, it will link Ferozepur with Srinagar on one side and Mumbai on the other. Both Ferozepur and Fazilka will come on main railway map of India.

Of late Amritsar, which is the prime-mover of development of the entire border region, is sulking too. After the dark period from 1978 to 1997, it’s economy is no longer industrial. It is based totally on tourism now. Amritsar airport’s most proliferating flight to Birmingham was shut down due to maintenance issues of European Union with Turkmenistan Airlines and Air India’s lackadaisical attitude to fill the void.

Amritsar’s land border trade with Pakistan had come to a grinding halt, due to India’s imposition of 200% duty on all imports from Pakistan, which triple the price of all imports. There are ten thousand “Palledars” (laborers for loading and unloading of merchandize from both countries) at the border, all have become unemployed. They have more than sixty thousand mouths to feed. These folks have no work skills, they don’t know what to do. The marginal farmers want to grow out of wheat and rice cycle to conserve water. A few years ago, they had the option of exporting cash crops like baby corn, seasonal fruits and vegetables to London and Birmingham, but ever since Amritsar’s London, Birmingham and Toronto flights have been shifted to New Delhi, most perishable cargo is now loaded from New Delhi.

Both Tarn Taran and Kapurthala are piggy-backing Amritsar for the export of their seasonal fruits and vegetables, both are hurting badly, even Gurdaspur’s economy is in shambles. In the annual state budget for 2021-22 an engineering university has been approved for Gurdaspur and another similar institution has been approved in Ferozepur. Both will not be able to help the economies of these deprived districts. The missing railway link to be built between Ferozepur and Patti, if constructed, will bring most of the railway stations in Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur and Fazilka on the mainline railway map of India.

This area on one side will be linked to the Valley of Kashmir and on the other side India’s commercial capital Mumbai will be connected. This railway line will become an apple, pear and kinnow railway line.

A ray of hope is the allocation of Rs. 24 crores for land acquisition for a National Institute of Horticulture in Amritsar. The prime mover of the economy of this border belt is, of course, the city of Amritsar, which did not get any other well meaning project this time. The budget is good overall, it helps all the sections of the society, but the allocations seem to be short.   

(A writer is a distinguished Engineer with over 4 decades of illustrious experience with the Indian and US Governments)