Having crossed the halfway mark of a second consecutive term, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, de facto head of the SAD-BJP government in Punjab, has reset priorities. As the development agenda lost steam in the euphoria of back-to-back victories in assembly polls, the jolt of Lok Sabha results forced the CM-in-waiting to pull up his socks. Banking heavily on the new NDA government at the Centre, Sukhbir in an interview with HT said that, in next 30 months, all departments will get a thrust.
HT: Your performance doesn’t match up to the promises. What are the objectives you have set for the next 30 months?
Sukhbir: Where have we lagged? Actually you people (media) are always in a hurry. I delivered what I promised; there may be delays. Compare our performance with other states, especially in the neighbourhood. People of Punjab are impatient. They want very quick results. We have solved the power problem by creating capacity for generation. If there is a coal problem, that is not in our control.
People say you are a dream merchant. What’s the fate of connecting all major towns with four- or six-lane expressways?
Give me time till 2016-end, and then judge my performance. For more than four years we had been seeking clearances from the UPA regime. Now, in one month we got all clearances from (Union urban development minister) Nitin Gadkari. By December, construction will start on majority of the highways. UPA had put in place a very tedious process. Mr Modi (PM Narendra Modi) has cut delays drastically. Power, roads, communication and connectivity have been priority areas, followed by urban development. Within a year, every village will have 4G (internet). By 2017, every town will have 100% sewerage and water supply, besides good roads. Urban development schemes will start in December-January, construction will begin by MarchApril, and in two years this project will reach the stage of completion. These are the priorities now.
In your last term, the focus was on administrative reforms. What’s the update on that front?
No other state has taken governance reforms to our level. Police Saanjh Kendras is a one-of-its-kind initiative. We have notified 141 services under the Right to Service Act. Delivery has not been up to the mark, I agree. It is due to delay in computerisation. By July, the entire administration will be online. By March, all districts will be online. There will be 2,500 kiosks in villages and 500 in urban areas. For three years, we’ve been working on it.
How many projects have been cleared after the Progressive Punjab investor summit?
More than 90 projects in the manufacturing sector with an investment of ` 10,000 crore have been cleared. This does not include 4G, nor the Infosys or IT projects, or the ` 1,000-crore ITC food park project. Actual work took place in the last two months as the Punjab Investment Promotion Bureau took final shape in January-February. Then, till April we were busy in the Lok Sabha elections.
NDA has dropped a bombshell by denying a financial package. Why is NDA cold-shouldering you despite being a partner?
Have you read that letter [by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley]? What does it say? Discussions on what we are asking for are yet to take place. We want the Centre to reimburse the entire money spent during the terrorism days on paramilitary forces. We are demanding ` 8,000 crore which is under dispute with the Food Corporation of India and the ministry of food. They are not settling our dues. This has nothing to do with the financial package.
What exactly does the Centre want Punjab to do?
They suggested the Rural Development Fund be made a part of consolidated funds. These are part of discussions on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). We are asking that under GST we should be allowed to keep certain taxes independent of the GST. What is this hullabaloo all about? The RDF, etc., is our independent cess.
Will you follow the Centre’s directive?
No! We have made it clear to them. Rajasthan is charging cess on petroleum. Others charge marble cess etc. Agriculture is a natural resource on which we too are charging some tax. What does GST have to do with that? We will not make RDF and PIDB funds part of the consolidated funds. It has nothing to do with the package.
But the Centre wants you to set your fiscal house in order.
We are doing that. Revenue and fiscal deficit have been contained; debt-to-GSDP ratio has come down. We are actually better than other states in achieving targets. Everybody has misconstrued the letter.
The state’s fiscal health is worrisome. Instead of taking tough steps, your government wants the Centre to come to rescue?
When we took over in 2007, revenue generation from VAT was ` 5,000 crore which is now ` 20,000 crore. This is the result of sound initiatives. We were derailed by the pay commission recommendations which in one shot took away ` 7,000 crore from the kitty and added ` 4,000 crore annual burden on our coffers. This was a bolt from the blue. The state would have collapsed had we not taken effective steps to improve our revenue collection. Punjab’s economy is growing. Look at the basic indicators, which are very positive. Suddenly, the ‘atom bomb’ (pay panel) falls but we still survive — this shows we did a pretty good job.
If the financial health is okay, why have promises such as doubling pensions been put on the backburner?
We were ready to implement all these promises very early. But we were hit by the pay commission and had to plan our finances accordingly. Now we have recovered from that shock. Hopefully, it will be implemented fast.
I cannot give a deadline. We are working in that direction. If I give you a date, you will create a hue and cry if we miss the deadline even by a day!
There is a sense that due to your focus on kabaddi, other sports activities are not getting attention they deserve. What do you have to say on that?
Within two months, a lot will happen on the sports front. A comprehensive plan is now in place. World-class shooting ranges at Mohali, Amritsar and Ludhiana with electronic/laser targets are coming up. Coaches of international stature will be hired, and the process will be complete by March next. We will target 15 medals in shooting! A major push will be given to hockey, wrestling, boxing and athletics. We will take care of selected players, training, food and education.
Why were people so angry with the SAD-BJP in the Lok Sabha elections?
A new ‘item’ had come up! You know Punjabis love new things, and if they don’t like it they discard it too very fast. Why did people dump the PPP? The AAP was a new phenomenon. Had the AAP not been there, we would have got 10 or more seats (out of 13). The AAP phenomenon has disappeared with the speed with which it had sprung up. Had elections been held on April 10 (not on April 30), the picture would have been different as the AAP phenomenon picked up after April 15-20.
To plug tax leakages you have taken one step forward and two steps backwards. Why?
This is part of democracy. We are not dictators. And this has got nothing to do with the BJP. If we feel there is a strong reaction from people, we go a step backward or half a step back.
BJP leaders feel that you interfere in the departments of industries and local bodies.BJP ministers are part of the team and vital planning. Not a single job of the industries minister has been taken away by the investment promotion bureau [headed by Sukhbir]. We (bureau) don’t deal with the industry per se. The purpose of creating the bureau is to facilitate fast clearances for projects after which the industries department deals with the process. We have an open relationship with the BJP. Our intention is not to interfere.