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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Two years of Amarinder government: With firm grip on power, Punjab CM leads charge but hit by delays

Before he led the Congress to a thumping triumph two years ago, Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh, in the run-up to the polls, promised the moon to everyone. On taking over, the two-time chief minister launched a war on drugs and gangsters, but felt constrained by fund crunch in implementation of populist promises.

chandigarh Updated: Mar 15, 2019 12:17 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
The Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab will complete two years in government on March 16.
The Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab will complete two years in government on March 16. (Sanjeev Sharma / HT Photo )
         

The Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress, which rode the populist bandwagon to power in Punjab with one seat short of a two-thirds majority (got one more in a by-election later) in 2017, will complete two years in government on March 16. As it prepares its strategy for the May 19 parliamentary polls, HT looks at the performance of Amarinder and his team of ministers through the prism of promises made in the poll manifesto and other announcements

Capt Amarinder Singh, chief minister: Master of optics

Age: 77, Education: Graduate

A scion of the erstwhile Patiala royal family, Capt Amarinder Singh has a taste for grand gestures. Before he led the Congress to a thumping triumph two years ago, Amarinder, in the run-up to the polls, promised the moon to everyone. On taking over, the two-time chief minister launched a war on drugs and gangsters, but felt constrained by fund crunch in implementation of populist promises. After the euphoria around the Congress’ return to power following a gap of 10 years faded away, it was all about headline management. A master of optics, Amarinder has managed to hit the headlines with fair regularity by panning Pakistan and instituting an inquiry into sacrilege cases and the police firing on protesters at Behbal Kalan in 2015 that has his predecessor, the Badals, under pressure. Though there are some voices of discontent, he has maintained a firm grip on power.

PROMISES: The war on drugs, farm loan waiver, power to industry at Rs 5 per unit, freeze on power tariff for other categories, Rs 2,500 unemployment allowance, free smart phones, one job per family, direct transfer of subsidies, job to a member of suicide-hit farmer families, Rs 1,500 monthly social welfare pension and direct income support to farmers are a few among a long list of promises made by the Congress.

PERFORMANCE: Cracking down on drugs, gangsters and terror modules from the word go, Amarinder began well, besides taking steps to end VIP culture by abolishing red beacons and the halqa in-charge system. When it comes to steps having direct final implications, major promises, except farm loan write-off and power to industry at Rs 5 a unit, remain unfulfilled. The loan waiver, though watered down from the poll promise, has been replicated by the Congress in other states. Neither much has been done on other promises, nor is there any commitment as to when these will be fulfilled. The government has been blaming empty coffers that it inherited for the delay.

CONTROVERSIES: The contradictory stands of Amarinder and his local bodies minister Navjot Singh Sidhu on Pakistan’s role in the Pulwama terror attack, the Indian Air Force’s retaliatory airstrikes and the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur corridor, besides certain governance issues, have been a constant source of controversy.

 

1. Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa: CM’s yes man

Portfolio: Rural development and panchayats; urban development and housing

Age: 74 , Education: Graduate

Tript Singh Bajwa made news whenever his cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu did. It is not only due to an overlap in functions of local government (Sidhu’s ministry) and urban development, which Sidhu wanted, but also because Bajwa is chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s counter to Sidhu. The minister wields political clout due to his heavyweight departments and is in command of all vote-catching schemes and policies, urban and rural. Bajwa was in the news during the panchayat elections in December last year and claimed credit for their peaceful conduct. But the opposition says he let the writ of the ruling party run amok and the elections were marred by rigging.

Promises: The Congress manifesto had promised to regularise illegal colonies that came up on or before March 31, 2013. It had avowed a third-party audit of rural and urban infrastructure projects of the previous regime and facelift of villages by cleaning and remodelling ponds, piped water supply, unified service centres and implementation of MNREGA through a rural infrastructure renewal fund. It also promised an urban infrastructure renewal fund. The panchayat land usurped by the high and mighty was promised to be freed and developers penalised for not retaining 10% quota for EWS. The party promised to probe government permissions for all Badal businesses, including the luxury resort at Pallanpur village in New Chandigarh.

Performance: The hallmark of Bajwa’s performance has been tokenism. His policy on the regularisation of illegal colonies, plots and buildings watched the interest of colonisers and the deadline of March 19, 2019, and not 2013 as promised. Sidhu aired his objections publicly saying the scheme will turn Punjab’s cities into an urban mess. Bajwa ordered an audit of grants to 2,200 panchayats during the previous regime but found nothing amiss. A status-quoist, the urban department did not look into how the New Chandigarh master plan was tweaked for SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal’s resort. The government rolled out the Smart Village Campaign and Urban Environment Improvement Programme to give villages and towns a facelift two months ahead of the poll code. Women were given the promised 50% representation in panchayats, though most were fielded as proxy candidates. The works under MNREGA have doubled and income of village common lands has seen a jump.

Controversies: Bajwa’s trip to the United Kingdom in August last year had kicked up a storm with the BJP accusing him of meeting office-bearers of the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), the organiser of ‘Referendum-2020’.

The regularisation policy for illegal colonies and moratorium to promoters on paying external development charges were short-sighted. They will discourage genuine builders and buyers and turn Punjab’s cities into slums.

The department’s marriage palace policy has so far found only 73 takers.

2. Brahm Mohindra: Half-way recovery

 

Portfolio: Health and family welfare, medical education and parliamentary affairs

Age: 72, Education: Post-graduate

Number two in the Punjab cabinet, Brahm Mohindra is known to be a seasoned but shrewd politician. He is a six-time MLA and barring this term, throughout his political career, he remained the political opponent of chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. The minister’s chemistry with the chief minister in this tenure has surprised many. He is deputed to bail the government out of crises.

Promises: Running an aggressive drug de-addiction campaign; setting up a clinic for every 1,000 population; regular recruitment of doctors; upgrading civil hospitals; improving drug supply in government dispensaries; universal health insurance scheme; and opening five medical colleges.

Performance: A few steps were taken but the health department faces a financial crunch. Recruitment of doctors improved and using his clout, Mohindra was able to remove the condition of paying only basic salary to them. He started free dialysis in government hospitals besides free availability of blood in their banks. Lack of hygiene in hospitals is a concern. The department failed to buy few essential drugs due to the fund crunch. He started a scheme to hire super specialists from private hospitals for OPDs in civil hospitals.

The department started out-patient opioid assisted treatment (OAAT) centres but the misuse of buprenorphine was reported. The new medical college in Mohali has not seen the light of the day.

Controversies: Lok Insaaf Party MLA Simarjit Singh Bains accused Mohindra of favouring private firms supplying buprenorphine. The minister filed a defamation case against the MLA.

3. Om Parkash Soni: Put to the test

 

Portfolio: School education, food processing

Age: 61, Education: Under graduate

Beginning his political career as Amritsar’s first mayor, Om Parkash Soni won five consecutive assembly elections – the first two as an independent candidate – and has come a long way. When inducted into the cabinet in April 2018, he was not happy with his school education and environment portfolios, but got on with the task. Abysmal results, quality of education, dipping enrolment and constant protests by teachers were just a few of his challenges. He was divested of the environment portfolio a few days after the National Green Tribunal slapped a fine of Rs 50 crore on the government in November 2018 for river pollution.

Promises:Rationalisation of teacher deployment, improvement in the quality of education, regularisation of contractual teachers and others, English as a medium of instruction, smart IT-enabled classrooms and hike in allocation. Free textbooks, transportation and free internet connectivity were promised in poll manifesto.

Performance: Soni and his school education secretary Krishan Kumar, a no-nonsense bureaucrat, took measures to improve the quality of education, increase enrolment, regularise contractual teachers and crack down on copying, besides undertaking school beautification. But delivery is an issue. Free textbooks got delayed and free uniforms were not given at all. The promises of free transportation and internet connectivity remain unfulfilled. The online transfer policy has not been implemented. Teachers are also opposing the Padho Punjab, Padhao Punjab programme, aimed at improving quality. Contractual teachers remained in protest mode for regularisation with pay protection. As the protest escalated, Soni showed patience and held several rounds of meetings with teachers before they ended the stir. Soni and Kumar got appreciation from the state cabinet last week for their handling of the teachers’ protests.

Controversies: Row over change in history syllabus and mistakes in Class 12 textbooks by Punjab School Education Board left the Congress government red-faced and it had to withdraw them. In January, he faced flak for comparing government schools to dhabas and private schools to five-star hotels.

4. Balbir Singh Sidhu: Laboured but little to show

 

Portfolio: Animal husbandry; dairy development and labour

Age: 59, Education: Graduate

Balbir Singh Sidhu reached Mohali in 1981 from his native town of Rampura Phul with politics in mind. He contested two assembly elections in 1997 and 2002 unsuccessfully but since 2007, he has been a consistent winner from Kharar and Mohali constituencies. Other than politics, he has interests in the liquor trade.

Promises: To revise the deputy commissioner wage rates for labourers by linking them to the general price index and setting up a board for the welfare of labourers; and recruitment of veterinary doctors in the animal husbandry department.

Performance: The promises for labourers await a policy decision. The animal husbandry department has started the process to recruit 117 veterinary doctors and 291 veterinary inspectors. Sidhu brought the technology of sexed semen in the state that gives dairy farmers the freedom to choose the gender of the calf. With his initiative, the area under shrimp fish production has gone up to 350 acres. Each acre provides an annual income of Rs 6 lakh.

He admits the problem of stray animals is tough to counter for the department but is sure it will come under control with the sexed semen technology.

A promise by the Congress to give five marla residential plots or tenements to the economically weaker sections (EWS) remains only on paper.

Controversies: The name of an associate of the minister figured in a case of illegal sand mining but Sidhu denied his role. His liquor business interests clash with his official status. He may face trouble once the state government passes the conflict of interest law.

5. Bharat Bhushan Ashu: Tall claims, but short on delivery

 

Portfolio: Food and civil supplies and consumer affairs

Age: 48, Education: Graduate

Bharat Bhushan Ashu’s rise from councillor in the Ludhiana municipal corporation to a minister in the state cabinet was slow and steady as it took 20 years. He took charge in April last year when the wheat procurement season was on. Succeeding Adaish Partap Singh Kairon of the SAD-BJP government who had hands-on experience of the food department, Ashu faced the challenge of managing operations across the state.

Promises: Labourers to get direct payment in accounts by minimising the role of contractors; online security refund to millers after the delivery of rice; smart ration cards for PDS beneficiaries and fake beneficiaries to be culled out.

Performance: The cabinet recently decided to give contracts to labourers for lifting and transporting foodgrains, bypassing the contractors who fleece them but this will take time to implement. Online security refund to rice-millers remains on paper. At least 4 lakh fake beneficiaries removed from PDS list.

Despite tall claims, the department failed to stop the arrival of rice bought at lower prices from other states that is allegedly mixed with freshly shelled rice to increase profit.

The government promised to bypass commission agents while paying the minimum support rice for wheat and paddy through direct transfer but only two farmers opted for it.

Despite rain at the paddy maturing stage, the quality of produce suffered but procurement was smooth. The government managed to save Rs 175 crore by streamlining transport contracts.

Controversies: The Aam Aadmi Party demanded Ashu’s dismissal during the budget session after he was named for grant of change of land use permission to a real estate builder in Ludhiana. Though he claimed innocence, the AAP made an issue of it and the CM ordered a probe.

An audio clip was shared on social media, purportedly of Ashu’s telephonic conversation with a police officer in which the minister is threatening the officer.

First Published: Mar 15, 2019 12:14 IST

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