Punjab has been lagging, but it will slip further if the political class fails to set a positive agenda for the state. Political parties can continue to differ on ideologies and indulge in mudslinging if they wish to, but they should at least evolve a consensus on major issues in the larger interest of the state otherwise the coming generations will never forgive them.
This is what emerged from the forum discussion at Citizens’ Agenda here on Thursday, part of the Hindustan Times initiative to set a concrete agenda for the state leadership. Prominent personalities from various fields participated in the conclave, which was moderated by HT resident editor Ramesh Vinayak. They dwelled on the problems plaguing the state and came up with some valuable suggestions.
The panelists, including Punjabi University vice-chancellor Dr Jaspal Singh, Thapar University director Dr Abhijeet Mukherjee, noted theatre artiste Manpal Tiwana, power sector expert and former PSPCL chief engineer Padamjit Singh, economist Dr Kesar Singh, noted agriculturist and Plantsman’s Seeds MD Abdul Wahid, health expert and women’s rights activist Dr Harshindar Kaur and Patiala Industries Association president Naresh Gupta, deliberated on the challenges before the state and how to go about meeting them.
The wide-ranging discussion touched upon various issues, boiling down to the need for a leadership which has the will to take tough decisions for the betterment of the state.
The panelists stressed that political parties should evolve a common minimum programme on key sectors like health, education, agriculture and industry to make Punjab prosperous again. They said Punjab has the potential of regaining the top position in the country, but it needs a proper policy to ensure overall development, an efficient delivery system and corruption-free governance. All said and done, what can really make a difference is strong political will power. Here are excerpts of the discussion:
In light of the fact that the power sector holds the key to industrial and agricultural growth, the panelists suggested that the coming government should lay more emphasis on power generation and make all possible efforts to cut losses and bring efficiency in the system.
Initiating the debate, noted power expert Padamjit Singh observed that the debts of the PSPCL had mounted to Rs. 20,000 crore due to the policy of providing free power to the agriculture sector and backward classes. “Successive governments are using PSPCL to garner votes by distributing free power, but they have never planned the growth of the power sector nor provided ample funds for it,” he said.
“I am not against free power. If the government wants to continue with it, it should at least compensate PSPCL for it. They must pay the subsidy in cash instead of making book adjustments. Otherwise, PSPCL will collapse,” he said. Claiming that the MoU part of the 2010 electricity policy for setting up power stations would encourage scams, he suggested that the government should go for the bidding process to get power at cheapest rates.
Agriculture expert Abdul Wahid said free power to farmers must continue since the agriculture sector was a major contributor to Punjab’s GSDP.
Implement financial restructuring plan as per the national electricity policy, which stipulates that new companies/utilities created after unbundling should not be burdened with past debts.
Stop freebies or pay in cash for subsidies instead of making book adjustments.
On the lines of Gujarat, the Punjab government should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to power thefts.
Scrap MoU policy on power projects.
Set up a 1,320-MW power plant in the public sector.
Adopt a rolling 15-year power plan. Diversify power generation by opting for hydel and wind energy.
Health and education
Punjabi University vice-chancellor Dr Jaspal Singh said the government should focus on improving health and education services to ensure human resource development. Highlighting the gaps in the primary education system, Dr Abhijeet Mukherjee said that many students opting for higher education in the state were mediocre. Dr Harshindar Kaur said health services and primary education should be free.
Government must spend at least 20% of the GSDP on health and education. Provide free and compulsory healthcare and primary education to all.
Treat all accident victims for free.
Regulate charges of corporate hospitals.
Evolve a policy to check brain drain.
Warning that Punjab is staring at a major agrarian crisis, Dr Kesar Singh, professor, Centre for Research in Economic Change, said despite the fact that Punjab’s economy was largely based on agriculture, the political class was not giving due attention to the farm sector. “Farmers are committing suicide as their returns are dipping and the input costs are rising. The political leadership of the state, which once considered agriculture as a priority, is now promoting the interests of industrialists and the business class,” he said.
Diversification expert and agriculturist Abdul Wahid said the recent distress sale of basmati and potatoes had proved that Punjab was not ready for diversification. “We must bring the food-processing industry if we want diversification”, he suggested, adding that the government must identity the areas suited for various crops.
Naresh Gupta said entrepreneurs would be willing to invest in food-processing provided the government offers incentives and cuts down on taxes.
Introduce crop insurance cover.
Provide easy credit to farmers at 4% rate of interest.
Bring food-processing industry.
Promote post-harvest technology.
Centre should allocate more funds for the state’s agriculture sector.
Focus on agricultural research and dairy sector.
Patiala Industry Association president Naresh Gupta said Punjab had lagged in industrial growth because of militancy and its failure to cash in on opportunities in the post-liberalisation era. “Industrial growth and per capita income have both seen a decline as we have failed to attract new industries. Punjab is collecting 70% of its revenue from industry, but it has failed to provide a conducive atmosphere for industrial growth. Why would new units come to Punjab when the political atmosphere has become so vitiated. There are no tax holidays for the industry and the cost of land in Punjab is among the highest in India,” said Gupta.
“Punjab must create land pools to attract industry. This is the only way of giving a push to the state economy. More industry means more revenue. The money thus generated can be spent on public welfare,” he said.
Dr Kesar Singh said there was a need for political will to regularise the freebies and categorise them as planned expenditure on development.
Formulate a liberal industrial policy and offer tax holidays.
Introduce single-window clearance system, do away with political interference.
Create land pools to bring industry as it is not feasible for entrepreneurs to purchase land at market rates.
Amend old legislations like the factory Act, ESI Act and Shop and Establishments Act.