Debt, creating jobs my key challenges: Himachal CM Jai Ram Thakur
Three months after he became the accidental chief minister of Himachal Pradesh in a quirky turn of electoral fortunes, Thakur has found his feet and has injected a new energy in governance while steering clear of toxic vendetta that has long vitiated the hill state’s otherwise tranquil politicsindia Updated: Mar 30, 2018 09:42 IST
The first thing that strikes you on meeting Jai Ram Thakur is his disarming modesty. The sixth chief minister of Himachal Pradesh self-effacingly talks about his humble family background and how he as a Class 10 student used to trek 16 km daily to and from his school in Mandi.
Three months after he became the accidental chief minister in a quirky turn of electoral fortunes, Thakur has found his feet and has injected a new energy in governance while steering clear of toxic vendetta that has long vitiated the hill state’s otherwise tranquil politics. Politically, he is firmly placed but the 52-year-old face of generational shift in Himachal sounded acutely conscious of the uphill tasks before him in the course of a freewheeling chat with Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak in Shimla on Wednesday. Excerpts:
The chief ministership came your way rather unexpectedly. How have you adapted to this responsibility?
This is definitely a larger responsibility. Starting from the grassroots, I have climbed the political ladder and held positions of state party president and cabinet minister (2007-12). The experience has stood me in good stead. No one, including me, had imagined this (becoming the CM). People now feel this change is for the better. For two decades in Himachal Pradesh, the top job was rotating between two personalities (Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal). It was a pattern. I’m seen as the new man taking new initiatives. After the poll results, some thought, ‘Yeh CM banega nahin, agar ban gaya to chalega nahin. (He won’t become the CM and if he does, he won’t be able to run the show).’ I needed time to get into the rhythm. After three months, I’ve settled down and set the pace for my government.
What are the key challenges your government faces?
A debt burden of Rs 45,500 crore, creation of jobs, and bringing private investment. A crucial test was the first budget that sent out the right message on our priorities. Despite the resource crunch, we have come up with 30 small but innovative schemes. In 20 years, the budget offered only five to seven new schemes. Mostly, old schemes were recycled under different names.
How seriously does the debt impact the state’s development?
The quantum of debt is too big a burden for a small state like Himachal Pradesh. Repayment of loans and interest eats up a sizeable chunk of the revenue. This constrains the room for big ticket development. At present, central schemes are the mainstay of our development. The good part is that the Narendra Modi government has bracketed us with the northeastern states in funding central schemes under the 90:10 formula. That’s a big support. Before 2014, the Centre used to fund 60% and the state’s share was 40%.
How will you fix the state’s fiscal health?
For additional revenue generation, we are focusing on power, mining and tourism. We will cut wasteful expenditure. The last Congress government, in its second cabinet meeting, sanctioned new cars for all ministers. Each vehicle cost Rs 30-35 lakh. We haven’t done that. Likewise, the previous government had nine chief parliamentary secretaries. Each CPS costs as much as a minister. We haven’t appointed a CPS yet. We will examine the court judgment on CPS appointment and will be prudent. We are also doing away with lavish spending. I have spoken to my ministers, MLAs and officers to curtail unnecessary expenses.
You have 44 MLAs in the 68-member House. How will you accommodate their ambitions for a slice in the power cake?
Expectations are there, it’s natural. But I am trying to make them understand what is possible in the given situation. They understand our compulsions. Even on chairman and vice-chairman of boards and corporations, we have filled only three or four posts.
What initiatives have been unveiled in the first three months of your rule?
Our focus has been two-fold. That’s creating resources for new initiatives and setting targets for their implementation besides addressing the larger issues of investments and jobs. Government jobs are not there. New industries are not coming after the expiry of central tax benefits to Himachal. So, we have a plan on financial assistance/subsidies for self-employment ventures in agriculture and horticulture. Shelters for stray cows is another issue we have tried to address practically. After all, there is a religious reverence for the cow. The budget provision will be met by taking 15% of income of all temple trusts and levying a cow cess of Re 1 per liquor bottle. Managing abandoned cows is a big task but we have taken a step forward.
There are serious shortcomings in delivery of quality education and health.
That’s correct. In 2016-17, 1.75 lakh students dropped out of government schools. Even a poor family in rural Himachal wants good education for its children. Falling standards of school education are a cause of worry. Things have come to this pass because the previous government kept opening new institutions without caring for infrastructure and staffing. The last government, at its fag end, announced new schools and colleges just for political benefits. They were neither required nor viable. Instead of expansion, we will strengthen infrastructure and staffing. We have started a pilot scheme where 10 government schools will be merged into one institution with teachers, infrastructure and hostel. Depending on the response, this model will be replicated to bolster the quality of education. We will regulate the fee of private schools and colleges, and, if need be, do that through a legislation.
We face shortage of 800 doctors. Again, that’s because the earlier government was in expansion mode without providing the staff. The number of institutional deliveries in the state is low. To reverse this, we have come up with a scheme that gives a hygiene kit worth Rs 1,500 to mothers delivering at government hospitals.
Your party’s ‘golden vision’ promised to rid the state of mafia raj. Any progress?
We are dealing with this sternly. Himachal is a small state but the sand mafia enjoyed big protection under the last government. In three months, we have stopped 21 illegal crushers. Illegal mining has been checked. This has hurt business and political interests. We are now mulling a mining policy that will get us more resources and end illegal quarrying. The second challenge is the drug mafia that has a nexus, especially in areas bordering Punjab and Haryana. Then, there is a narcotics problem in Kullu. We have taken steps but I don’t want to make much noise as that is not good for the state’s image. Let me assure you there will be a full-hearted and stringent action. Thirdly, we have disrupted the forest mafia and stemmed its brazen run.
Your ministers and MLAs are yet to voluntarily declare their assets as promised in the manifesto?
The Election Commission has left little scope for elected people to hide assets. We have told our people to disclose their assets to the government and I’m sure they will do so soon.
The Congress alleges that the RSS is running the show for you.
They are saying it for the sake of it. The RSS plays a limited role. Once in a while, it offers a suggestion. Their members hold consultations with political colleagues. It’s more of an advisory role. The government is running on its own. It is true that the RSS is a source of our ideology. It has a right to say things but it doesn’t interfere in government processes.
There was uproar over your move to amend Section 118 of the Land Tenancy Act that bars non-agriculturists from buying farm land. Have you dropped the idea?
Section 118 has been amended many a time before. There is need to simplify the Act. The interest of the people of Himachal Pradesh is foremost for us. But to promote tourism and private investment, it is necessary to take a re-look and consider the Act. Notwithstanding the opposition’s noise, we will find a way out without tinkering with the spirit of the Act.
Why are major highway projects in Himachal caught up in delays?
Two years ago, the Centre sanctioned an upgrade of 69 state highways to national highways in the state. But the process of detailed project reports has been delayed. The last Congress government cleared tenders for DPRs on only eight projects. We have tenders for another 43 projects. After DPRs, land acquisition will take its own time