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Candid talk with Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh | ‘Our fiscal health is down but the mood is up’

In a chat with Senior Resident Editor on Tuesday, chief minister exuded optimism but sounded caution against expecting quick results.

punjab Updated: May 25, 2017 09:00 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times
Punjab government,Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh,farmers
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.(Anil Dayal/HT Photo)

Politically, Capt Amarinder Singh couldn’t have been more firmly in the saddle. But his daunting challenge lies in resuscitating an almost dead-on-arrival finances bled as much by horrendous mismanagement and runaway populism of successive governments as by a sputtering state economy. That holds the key to delivery on a raft of promises he made before the elections. As the Captain soldiers through the fiscal rot, he will have take a tough call, and quick, on how to fix it.

Seven weeks in power, Amarinder, 75, has charted out his priorities with an unmistakable political subtext. While the karza-kurki-khatam move is to firm up his standing with the peasantry, the government is mulling a peace memorial for 30,000 people consumed by terrorism in the dark ’80s, a symbolic gesture to 43% Hindus who catapulted him to power. In a chat with Senior Resident Editor on Tuesday, chief minister exuded optimism but sounded caution against expecting quick results.

How do you look at your government’s first few weeks?

Well, we got down to business from Day 1. Be it finding jobs, solutions to farm debt waiver or drugs, we took appropriate decisions. If people expect results immediately, that’s not possible. In eight weeks I can’t deliver, but I can start the process that will deliver.

How challenging is it to run a government with an empty treasury?

I’m afraid we don’t even know how bad we are. We thought we will have a debt of Rs 1.3 lakh crore. But the way things are going, it may be Rs 2 lakh crore once the white paper is out. We have revenue deficit, too. Luckily, the two auctions on liquor and sand have gone well. Regardless of the money being down, the mood in the government is up. That’s a good sign. I have told industrialists they shouldn’t expect concessions till we stabilise. We will give them good governance.

What’s your roadmap to get the state’s finances on track?

Industry is priority. Agriculture can’t drive the economy. India is looking at a national growth rate of 7.2% despite demonetisation but Punjab is running at 5%. So you have to bring in industry and all that the industry wants is a levelplaying field in policy, power and land. Once that happens, you will see the buoyancy coming. Real estate prices are up. That’s a good sign. I want real estate to grow because that’s the biggest employer.

You may have to make hard choices that may be unpopular.

I don’t think it’s that hard a choice. For instance, we will have to cut on wasteful expenditure. We also expect to gain from the goods and services tax (GST) windfall.

What purpose will the white paper serve? Will it go beyond the blame game?

The budget is sacrosanct. We want Punjab to know the reality. On Facebook, I see everyone clamouring for something or the other. They must know that we don’t have the capacity to pay. We are trying to keep our commitments. We have to prioritise on spending. Look at school results, 50% of Class 10 students failed. We have to fix it and that needs money.

How will you go about writing off farm debt?

We will have to do it in phases. We have five years to go. We never said ‘ayundian saar aseen sab kucch khatam kar deyange (debts will be waived at the outset)’. There will be no arrests of farmers. We will start with the lowest holdings.

With a Rs 60,000­ crore farm debt, how will you pick up the tab?

It sounds strange but the biggest debtor is not the small farmer. It’s the middle and high-rung farmers. So in our scheme of things, the small farmer will come first. That’s where suicides are taking place. This Rs 60,000 crore is agriculture sector loan. Half of this is something farmers have taken to build a house or buy a car. That’s not part of the deal. The deal is: Help those who borrowed to produce crops. Their number is not big.

But farmers have stopped returning loans.

Let that happen. By May 30, Dr T Haque is going to give us his report and by June first week, we will come up with an answer.

How realistic is your promise to end kurki (attachment of land holding)?

We have made a commitment. No way are we allowing that (kurki). Major loans are from cooperative banks under us. That’s where the kurki is. It’s not national banks or arhtiyas (commission agents). No farmer will be arrested. That’s what is killing people, the humiliation.

Will rich farmers get waiver?

Their number is small. Who do you call a rich farmer – one with 25 acres or more? That’s nothing in terms of returns. His income may be less than that of my head constable.

On drugs, your government seems to only managing perception?

Not at all. The drug problem is a critical issue. A lot of our children are involved. They are frustrated as there are no jobs. The sharks keep selling and involving more people. Families are fed up.

But no big fish caught so far.

Since we came to power, the big sharks have run away from Punjab. We will get them. We’ve got little fellows, about 1,400 of them.

Will you bring in PCOCA (Punjab Control of Organised Crime Act) to check the rising gang culture?

Certainly. It may not be as draconian as the MCOCA of Maharashtra. There has to be a fear of god in somebody that if you are caught as a gangster, you will lose your property for good. We will have checks so that the police or the government can’t misuse it for dushmani kaddo (settling scores).

There seems to be a scramble for the spoils of power among your partymen?

You are talking about the sand business. Look, the last government got only Rs 45 crore and our initial auction has touched Rs 1,000 crore. Earlier, all this went to the Majithias and now it has gone to the exchequer. Everyone has a right to bid whether you are a Congressman or an Akali.

What about your promise on ghar ghar rozgar?

We are introducing one lakh Uber taxis this year. That will adjust two lakh people. We are also going to give permits for mini buses and regular buses that the youth will collectively operate. We don’t have any government jobs to offer. We need industry to boost the job market.

How hopeful are you about industrial investment?

Of 22 captains of business I have met so far, six have sent feelers. Their teams will soon finalise the projects. We will roll out a package for the local industry fast. The NITI Aayog has also assured us that tax concessions to industry in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarkhand will not be renewed. That had hurt Punjab.

Punjab has no legal case left on the SYL Canal. Do you see a political solution?

It’s difficult unless Haryana understands they have access to the Yamuna and Punjab to nothing. Union home minister Rajnath Singh has proposed another meeting under the aegis of the water resources ministry. The Supreme Court will obviously wait till something comes out of the talks.

Do you expect hand­holding from the Narendra Modi government to tide over the fiscal crisis?

Not really. The Government of India doesn’t have the money. But I have asked for tax exemptions for industry in the 40-km border belt.

Whom do you reckon as your main opposition – the Akalis or AAP?

The Akalis. They have been there since 1920 and have three generations growing up as Akalis. These chaps (AAP) are upstarts and I don’t expect them to be here for long.

How will this tenure as CM be different from the last?

Experience will make a difference. Last time, it took me two years to understand how the government functions. This time, it was a headstart from the word go.

You said this is your last term in power politics. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind?

Any CM would like go out with the flag flying high. If I am able to achieve what I set out to, it will be the greatest satisfaction.

First Published: May 25, 2017 08:33 IST