Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's oft-repeated demand for the reimbursement of money, spent by the state on fighting militancy in the past, by the central government found support on Saturday from an unlikely quarter -- Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh.
"In my personal opinion, it should not be left to Punjab alone to bear the burden of the expenditure that this border state had to incur to wipe out terrorism. Instead, the Centre should shoulder the responsibility," said Ramesh.
It is this expenditure, incurred by taking loans, that the state government blames for its humungous debt. The state government now shells out over Rs 6,000 crore each year as interest on loans taken over the years.
Ramesh, speaking to the media after a seminar on rural development policies which was attended by chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, Congress legislature party (CLP) leader Sunil Jakhar, besides MLAs and senior functionaries of the state government, also said that there was a need for the union government to grant more flexibility to the state governments in using development-oriented central funds.
"At least 50% of the rural development funds should be spent by the states as per their priorities. The Centre and the states can devise the accountability mechanism later," said the union minister, who also holds the portfolio of sanitation and drinking water.
Indirectly referring to the delicate issue of Centre-state relations and apparently conscious of the fact that Badal has been accusing the Centre of weakening the federal structure, Ramesh said, "The Centre will never cross the boundaries… I have purposely avoided using the term 'Centre's money'… The money which the Centre gives to the states is the money of the people of this country."
He insisted that he was an unequivocal votary of strong federalism. "I have already mooted a proposal to place the funds for rural development at the disposal of the states."
However, at the same time, Ramesh made it a point to dismiss allegations of the Centre discriminating against Punjab.
'No discrimination against Punjab'
Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh on Saturday dismissed the Parkash Singh Badal government's allegation of the Congress-led UPA regime at the Centre discriminating against Punjab.
Ramesh, who was on a three-day tour of the border state, said, "I read in newspapers often, statements accusing union government of discriminating against Punjab… It's wrong," he said. "Badalji (CM) I want to assure you that the Congress-led UPA government has never discriminated against Punjab."
He said that Punjab, being the "food bowl of the country", always enjoyed "a special status." "I agree with Punjab that this state should be looked after differently," he added.
Referring to the flagships schemes of the UPA government, the union minister said: "The flag is of the Centre and the ship is of the states. Hence, flagship!"
Earlier, speaking at the seminar, he remarked, "There are not only real BPL (below poverty line) families, but also those that make it to that category due to their political connections."