Didn’t let development derail despite economic stress, virus under control: Himachal chief minister Jai Ram Thakur

In an exclusive in-person interview with Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak in Shimla, Thakur exuded an air of quiet confidence on dealing with the challenges ahead while answering a range of questions.
Chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, who completes his three years in office on December 27, talking to Hindustan Times in Shimla on Sunday.(HT photo)
Chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, who completes his three years in office on December 27, talking to Hindustan Times in Shimla on Sunday.(HT photo)
Updated on Dec 21, 2020 10:50 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Shimla | By Ramesh Vinayak

Three years since he was unexpectedly catapulted to the top job in Himachal Pradesh, chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, 55, is firmly in the saddle politically. But he faces the uphill task of keeping up a bevy of poll promises, made tougher by an unrelenting Covid-19 rampage that has battered the state’s economy, already weighed down by a surging debt burden of 56,000 crore. With his understated, hands-on style of governance, the BJP leader from Mandi, who enters his fourth year at the helm on December 27, has been quick to reset his priorities to blunt the opposition’s charge of below-par performance. In an exclusive in-person interview with Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak in Shimla on Sunday, Thakur exuded an air of quiet confidence in his ability to deal with the challenges ahead. Edited excerpts:

How do you look at three years of your government?

Overall, it has been a satisfactory performance. The last one year, since March, has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic which adversely impacted the state financially and also certain big projects that were in the pipeline. But we didn’t let the health emergency delay or derail initiatives that we had taken at the outset of our term. That has earned us goodwill. There is not a single major issue that the people hold against my government.

Which are those initiatives?

Since its inception, Himachal Pradesh has seen two parties’ rule by rotation. Every five years, the new government used to begin its term with a spirit of revenge against the last regime by scrapping its decisions and registering cases against its leaders. This trend was going on for long. I put an end to the politics of vendetta. My conviction is that people elect us to work for them; not fix our political opponents. We also launched the Jan Manch scheme in which all ministers, along with officials, hear public grievances at a pre-decided venue on the first Thursday of every month. That provided on-the-spot redressal to people and reduces their footfall in government offices.

On the social welfare front, our government reduced the limit for old age pension from 80 to 70 years and expanded the ambit of the Narendra Modi government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme that benefited 22 lakh of state’s 70 lakh population. For those left out, we introduced the Him Care scheme for free treatment.
Similarly, as a state version of the Centre’s Ujjwala Scheme that covered 1.5 lakh families, we implemented Grahini Suvidha, covering another 2.86 lakh beneficiaries. Today, Himachal Pradesh is the only the state where each household has a cooking gas facility.

During the global investors’ meet in November last year, memoranda of understanding (MoUs) worth
96,000 crore were signed. It was the first such initiative to make Himachal an investment destination. Within a month, ground breaking for a Rs 13,000-crore project was held. The Covid-19 crisis came as a setback to the process. Still, projects of Rs 9,000 crore are under implementation. As the pandemic subsides, plans are afoot for the groundbreaking of another 10,000-crore projects in two months.

How is it that Covid-19 continues to surge in Himachal, while it is on the decline in other states?

The virus has spiked in different states at different times. Here, the infection is peaking now. The spike in two months has coincided with the onset of winter and the wedding season. Indoor social gatherings are a big factor in the spread of infection. Up to 100 positive cases were reported after a wedding. There was casualness in adhering to the government-imposed caps on the number of attendees. So, we had to re-impose restrictions and tighten enforcement. The limit for social gatherings has been restricted to 50. Night curfew is in place in four worst-hit districts of Shimla, Kullu, Kangra and Mandi.

As a result, the number of daily cases has dropped from 800 to 300. With 9,000 tests daily, our testing, despite being a small state, is much higher than others. Now that the wedding season is over, the case load has shown a sharp decline from 1,000 to 300 in the past week. We will review the night curfew on December 23.

But the opposition blames the government for gross mishandling the Covid crisis?

Except coronavirus, the opposition has no other issue. They feel it’s a godsend. Otherwise, they were issueless. This is not a manmade or government-made crisis. This should not be exploited politically. The government expected the opposition to behave responsibly and offer suggestions to deal with the crisis. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

The government’s decision to scrap the winter session of the assembly has drawn criticism that it is ducking the debate on Covid management?

I’m amazed at their charge. This year, we had a 10-day monsoon session which, in my 24 years in the Vidhan Sabha, was never for more than five or six days. We had to call off the winter session as both Dharamshala and Shimla (the winter and summer capitals) are reeling under a spike in Covid cases. Also, there’s no constitutional obligation to hold the same. Our budget session, due by March 18, is round the corner. Most Congress leaders had privately conveyed to the government against holding the winter sittings. There is no question of running away from the debate.

There has also been criticism that the government health infrastructure proved inadequate to deal with the Covid crisis?

The blame lies on the Congress that has ruled the state for 50 of 70 years since Independence. When
the crisis erupted, government hospitals had only 50 ventilators. Their number today is 700.The reality is that neither the world nor the country nor the state was prepared for such an unprecedented health emergency. Yet, even in a short span, we scaled up health infrastructure and set up four well-equipped makeshift hospitals.

What has been the impact of the Covid crisis on the state’s economy?

We have suffered an economic loss of at least Rs 30,000 crore. The state’s GSDP has shrunk by Rs 4,000 crore. The hardest hit is tourism that has been a big generator of employment and revenue. Industrial, agriculture and horticulture sectors were less impacted. Drug manufacturing at Baddi, one of Asia’s major pharma hubs, went on even during the lockdown. Apple and cherry crops got good market prices this season. Infrastructure projects suffered as the lockdown kept away labour from other states and the construction season got curtailed.

How has the revenue crunch impacted government projects and schemes?

The impact is definitely there. We have rejigged our funding priorities for ongoing projects. Implementation of some of them has been slowed but not stopped. We shall try and speed them up next year. Ours is perhaps the only state that has not slashed employee’s dearness allowance. There has been no cut in outlay for social welfare schemes. Rather, some of them have been supplemented.

How has the crisis impacted the state’s debt burden?

Our government had inherited an outstanding debt of Rs 47,000 crore. We had to borrow more in the last three months as the Centre relaxed the limit. The present debt burden now stands at Rs 56,110 crore.

Has the Centre provided any bailout?

Himachal is one of the few states getting a monthly revenue deficit grant of 952 crore. We were expecting a big cut in that. Luckily, we have been spared that. Now, the Centre
has given us 450 crore special
assistance, which is interest-free for 40 years. That is a big relief. Also, there has been only a 10% cut in
central taxes.

What is your wish list for the Centre?

We are pressing for external-aided projects. A Rs 1,892-crore tourism infrastructure project funded by Asian Development Bank is at an advanced stage but it has been on hold. There has also been a pause
on the centrally funded national
highway projects. We are expecting the finance commission’s green signal on state-specific projects. We are also taking up the setting up of a greenfield international airport at Mandi and expansion of airports at Shimla and Kangra.

What has been the progress on your promise to cut non-planned and wasteful expenditure?

We have put a full stop on haphazard expansion in education and health sectors, which was the norm in the previous Congress government that opened 60 degree colleges a week before the assembly elections. Hundreds of schools and hospitals were announced and many had a budget provision of only Rs 1 lakh! Instead of numbers, we are focusing on infrastructure and staffing. I have filled up three cabinet vacancies after two-and-a-half years and refrained from making wholesale political appointments to public sector undertakings. The previous Congress regimes used to fill all that within a week of coming to power and spend lavishly.

How successful you have been on the promise to curb VIP culture? The opposition says the ministers got luxury cars despite the resource crunch.

We have succeeded to a considerable extent. A vehicle is the basic necessity for the movement of elected representatives. We can’t tell them to take a horse or cycle in place of car.

Your government faced flak over a health department scam in the purchase of Covid supplies that led to the resignation of the state BJP chief. Has that not hurt the government’s image?

More than the government, it was an individual case. Soon after the scam surfaced, the government acted swiftly and arrested the health director, that too amid the pandemic. State party president Dr Rajeev Bindal resigned on moral grounds. Had he not done that; the opposition would have kept harping on
the issue. That would have hurt us more. I stand for a zero tolerance on corruption.

Your party had promised 70% jobs for locals in private projects. Are you open to bringing a legislation to ensure as Haryana has done?

There is a limited scope for government jobs. In the agreements signed with private investors, there is a provision for preference to local work force. I feel there is no need to make it legally binding for private investors, particularly at the start of a project. It may not be practical. The need is to enforce the existing mechanism. To address unemployment, we are focusing on two fronts. One, promoting self-employment ventures under the Mukhyamantri Swavalamban Yojna that offers loans up to Rs 40 lakh with 25% subsidy. Second, we are pursuing big ticket investments, which have not happened at the scale we had planned due to the Covid situation. We have aggressively bid for one of the three bulk pharma hubs that the Centre will allocate to the states soon. That involves investment of Rs 10,000 crore and can be a game-changer on employment generation.

There are reports of simmering factionalism in the state BJP?

With (Narendra) Modi ji, Amit Shah ji and Nadda ji around, this (factionalism) is a thing of the past. It’s over now. The party organisation is strong. Senior leaders do what the party assigns them. They support and guide us.

What are your priorities for the next two years?

To do better than what we have done in three years; specifically, in the delivery of social welfare schemes. I’m pushing for the international airport project, crucial to boost tourism. We have also set the target for fast-tracking the four-laning of the stretches from Kiratpur to Manali, Solan to Shimla and Mandi to Pathankot and Mandi to Matour.

You became the chief minister in an unexpected turn of events. What is the most important lesson you have learnt?

In politics, you have to be ready for every situation. You may get a big responsibility or a small one or no responsibility at all.

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Sunday, October 17, 2021