The tragic death of a 13-year-old girl after being allegedly molested and thrown off a bus of Orbit Aviation, a company owned by Punjab deputy CM and SAD president Sukhbir Badal, is being seen as the worst political crisis faced by the ruling family of Punjab after returning to power in 2007. The national outrage had the Badal government on the backfoot. In an interview with HT assistant editor Sukhdeep Kaur, Sukhbir says the Moga incident was an embarrassment but he is a politician who declares rather than conceals his assets.
The Moga incident has brought the spotlight back on the growing business empire and wealth of the ruling Badal family.
Do you want politicians not to do any work? Which politicians are better -- the ones like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (Congress president and vice-president) who hide their wealth or ones like me who do business, whose companies are duly audited and who pay taxes. All my businesses are above board. Sonia has shown her assets worth Rs 9 crore. Do you believe it? All my assets are declared. I am even thinking of issuing an advertisement listing all my assets and liabilities and net worth of my companies. As for my wealth, nearly 90% of it is from Orbit Resorts in Gurgaon. But the reserves and surplus include the revaluation of my land. Without the revaluation, it is not even Rs 100 crore. Amarinder Singh (former CM) tried his best to get me behind bars. He could not prove anything wrong. Please investigate how Amarinder lives such a lavish life with no source of income.
But there is a perception that the Badals have grabbed all businesses in the state -- from transport to hospitality to media.
Our transport company was formed in 1942, when even my father was not into politics. We are the oldest transport company of undivided Punjab. My first hotel started over 12 years back. It did well from the very beginning. In fact, the revenue from our first hotel helped us make the second one. Both are managed by the Oberoi group. Am I a criminal if I own companies, declare all my assets and pay taxes?
But there is a direct conflict of interest. Your transport companies are flourishing when state transport buses are accumulating losses. Their audited loss in 2013-14, according to the CAG report, stands at Rs 376 crore.
The PRTC losses have nothing to do with private buses. Haryana does not have private buses. What are the losses of Haryana Roadways? The losses of Air India run into hundreds of crores. Name one state transport that is making profits. The losses of state transport are from the high salaries, gratuity and other retirement benefits. The salary of government drivers is above Rs 40,000 while private operators pay them Rs 15,000. The pension paid to the staff of state transport utilities was Rs 49 crore in 2012-13. It jumped to Rs 54 crore in 2013-14. And the maintenance of state buses is also very high. How can you compare the efficiency of state and private sectors? The best routes are inter-state routes and national highways and they are with state buses. Our buses are catering to small places such as Gidderbaha and Malout.
The transport policy was tweaked after you came to power. The fare difference between ordinary and luxury buses was brought down. Luxury buses were allowed 100% higher fare and 93% cut in taxes.
The same number of government buses is plying in Punjab now as in 2007-08 (around 2,500). We are adding more new buses to the fleet. The number of private buses has gone up marginally (4,870 then to 5,014 now). As for the tax and fare policy, I also don’t hold the transport department. Look at the cost difference. An ordinary bus costs Rs 15 lakh. A luxury bus costs Rs 1.5 crore. The average mileage of ordinary bus is more than a luxury bus. And the central policy, too, is to encourage public transport. The policy was made in public interest. One bus takes off the load of 13 cars from the road.
Your buses also get preferential treatment on timetable at bus stands.
The timetable is decided by all the operators. No private bus operator is going to give into a timetable which does not suit him. Some of the private operators belong to the opposition Congress.
The drivers of Orbit are being accused of high-handedness. They drive rashly and misbehave with staff of other operators, even beat up traffic cops.
I am not involved in the day-to-day running of Orbit. But I have received such complaints on my Facebook page and the team of Orbit management is looking into it. We are going to install CCTV cameras. We are checking the records, a lot of drivers and conductors will be fired. A 24x7 complaint centre will also soon come up. People will be able to mail us the complaints. You can look at the data. Of the over 700 accidents by all kinds of buses in Punjab between 2013 and now, only 15 were by Orbit. And cases were filed against drivers in all these cases.
Why was the transport department taken away from the BJP?
The BJP themselves gave it up.
You are also building a five-star resort near Mullanpur. You are state’s urban development minister.
The hotel has got all approvals from the Centre -- that too when the Congress was in power at the Centre – and not from the state. If I make a four-lane road from Bathinda to Chandigarh, you will again call it conflict of interest saying I am making it to be able to travel to Bathinda. We have agricultural farms. That means we can never talk about agricultural prices. You will say it is conflict of interest.
Former Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh says you should either do business or govern the state.
Amarinder has to survive against Partap Bajwa (Punjab Congress chief). If Bajwa says something, Amarinder has to be one step ahead. All their statements are aimed at one-upmanship. What was the role the Congress and AAP were playing in Moga? They were unhappy when the family agreed to cremate the victim, so were the crew of some television channels.
Why did you visit the family so late?
The opposition parties and media were stoking sentiments. I went when things had been worked out.
Is the Moga incident an embarrassment for the family and government? Is it your worst political crisis?
It has been an embarrassment as the entire media was blaming us. They called it a killer bus accusing us of running a transport mafia. It was a very unfortunate incident and I personally felt very sad. The accused should be awarded the strictest punishment.
Why did your wife, Harsimrat, deny ownership of the bus?
She had not read about the incident when she was stormed by reporters outside Parliament asking her about Orbit. The national newspapers had not carried the news. She was also not aware about the ownership details of the company.