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SAD-BJP’s 9-yr report card: Punjab not quite on cloud 9

The Parkash Singh Badal-led SAD_BJP government completes nine years in power today. the coalition - the first to have two successive terms in Punjab’s history - has had its share of ups and downs as it braces for elections in less than a year. Hindustan Times takes a 360-degree look at the showing of the government, measuring it up against the promises it made in what it calls a “blueprint of Punjab’s destiny”. After all, a manifesto is like a promissory note - an article of written commitments to people. A stock-taking of eight key areas shows its performance to be a mixed bad of hits and misses.

punjab Updated: Mar 17, 2016 18:19 IST
HT Correspondents
Almost at the finish line...
Almost at the finish line...(Illustration by Daljeet Kaur Sandhu)

The Parkash Singh Badal-led SAD_BJP government completes nine years in power today. the coalition - the first to have two successive terms in Punjab’s history - has had its share of ups and downs as it braces for elections in less than a year. Hindustan Times takes a 360-degree look at the showing of the government, measuring it up against the promises it made in what it calls a “blueprint of Punjab’s destiny”. After all, a manifesto is like a promissory note - an article of written commitments to people. A stock-taking of eight key areas shows its performance to be a mixed bad of hits and misses.

Big ticket investments: Hype vs hope

Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has been trying to project his state as an “ideal” investment destination with the “money-follow-ideas” credo. But the SAD-BJP government’s performance in the industry and IT sectors has been a mixed bag. Though the state managed to assemble some top business leaders at its much-hyped investment summits, the promised investments are still to bear fruit.

The delivery on poll promises is not any different. While the government has not met its promise of bringing in a new manufacturing policy, the existing industries feel ignored. However, some relief did come the traders’ way after measures were taken under the “rahat scheme”, launched in 2014, to reduce the impact of inspector raj.

Similarly, the promise of developing SAS Nagar and Amritsar as IT hubs has been partly met with the good news coming from SAS Nagar. Other than a new Software Technology Park of India (STPI) centre in Amritsar, its development as an IT hub remains a dream. As for the promise to put the state in wi-fi mode, it is being done through Reliance Jio. Going by the deadline given to the company, the state, including rural areas, would be connected through broadband before the year-end. However, the services will not be free.

The government has faltered its promise of giving employability allowance of Rs 1,000 per month to jobless youth belonging to weaker sections to acquire vocational skills. The scheme was tweaked from being a grant to jobless youth to it being paid as fee by the government to the institute when the youth took admission in a vocational course. The scheme was not advertised and there were virtually no takers.

Populism above prudence

Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), had gone out all guns blazing against the Congress in the run-up to the 2007 assembly elections, blaming it for the fiscal mess in the state.

They had made the right noises about pulling the government out of financial morass by putting the economy back on track. But there has not been much change in the narrative during the SAD-BJP rule of nine years. The state finances are in a mess, owing to the high salary and pension bill of the government workforce, raising interest payments and ever-increasing subsidies, besides flagrant profligacy and the burden of revenue-guzzling populist doles.

The revenue receipts, which saw robust growth for two to three years during the tenure of the alliance due to value-added tax (VAT) and stamp duty, have failed to keep pace with the expenditure, falling short of targets. The biggest surge was in VAT and stamp duty, but the collections have been below expectations due to the economic slowdown.

The VAT collections, which saw a jump of 31% in one year alone, are estimated to grow by a minuscule 2% this year. On the other hand, the state’s committed liabilities such as salary and pension bill and interest payments have been growing, eating up bulk of its revenue receipts. The revenue deficit, which indicates the excess of revenue expenditure over the revenue receipts, is on upward trajectory again.

“The government has had to borrow liberally to meet its financial liabilities,” a government official said. The debt burden has gone up from Rs 48,344 crore in 2006-07 to Rs 1.25 lakh crore in 2015-16. Badal had, in a letter to Union finance minister Arun Jaitley on July 12, 2014, described the public debt as “humongous and unsustainable”, seeking a special package for the financial restructuring of the revenue-deficit state.

However, the FM, in his reply on August 19, 2014, made no commitment on the special package. He advised the state to consider routing receipts of the Punjab Infrastructure Development Fund and Rural Development Fund through its consolidated fund and rationalising power subsidy.

The government, in other words, was advised to adopt prudent financial practices. The fiscal stress has been affecting capital expenditure in the state. And, the government will need to get its act together and show fiscal discipline to salvage the situation.

Problem of plenty

A problem of plenty is what the Punjab government is facing in the power sector. The state has increased its total general capacity to 11,000 mega watt (MW), but demand keeps fluctuating, crashing to 3,000 MW at night and 5,500 MW during the day. The Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) is forced to shut down its thermal plants.

The excessive power in the state is forcing the corporation to pay huge fixed charges running into crores every year to private thermal power plants in Talwandi Sabo and Rajpura. As per the power purchase agreements, PSPCL is required to pay fixed charges even if power generated is not consumed by the state. The situation seems to be a result of capacity addition without proper demand assessment. The debt-laden corporation is hoping the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) for which the state has signed an MoU with the Centre would help it save Rs 500 crore every year through a reduction of 4% in interest cost. The entire debt burden of PSPCL will also be gradually shifted to the state government. The corporation may claim to be doing fairly well, but it continues to struggle financially, leading to delay in disbursement of pensions and salaries.

Some success, but still ailing

Upgrading health infrastructure, better delivery of services and affordable treatment were among the SAD-BJP alliance’s poll promises. While the Badal government is grappling with issues related to health infrastructure and staff shortage, it has done well in delivering healthcare to poor. The state achieved some success by reaching out to 16 lakh blue-card holders but has been facing a challenge due to fluctuating figures. The number of blue-card holders gone up to 28 lakh.

The annual health insurance cover under the Bhagat Puran Singh scheme was also increased from Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 last year though free surgical treatment remains a concern. The enrolment of farmers under the accidental death insurance scheme with a cover of Rs 10 lakh is still to start after it was announced last year.

Another initiative is the scheme for free treatment of trauma patients for the first 24 hours. The scheme was launched on August 15, 2015, with a funding of Rs 300 crore under the National Rural Health Mission.

Sangrur remains the only destination for advanced treatment of cancer. Another mega project coming up is Medicity at Mullanpur near Chandigarh for which the foundation stone was laid by then prime minister Manmohan Singh in December 2013. However, the Badal government has not honoured its promise of formulating a health policy for the state that is needed to remove the mismatch between diseases prevalent in the state and the Centre’s disease control programme.

Stagnating farms, sulking farmers

Despite being known as a party of peasants, the SAD, which leads the alliance, continues to draw flak for the slide in the agriculture sector. With farmers’ incomes going down and land holdings shrinking, the government’s role was reduced to that of an “intermediary” passing on central grants to cultivators. Its handling of crop failure and other farmrelated issues has been, unsatisfactory.

The government got a thumbs down from farmers for last year’s whitefly attack on the cotton crop. The agriculture department was criticised for irregularities in purchases and mishandling the situation. As spurious pesticides were supplied, farmers bore the brunt. The scam led to the arrest of then agriculture director Mangal Singh Sandhu. Agriculture minister Tota Singh also faced criticism and was snubbed by his own party.

The wheat crop in the rabi season suffered due to untimely rains and the yield fell by 15%. In the kharif season, farmers and the state government had to spend Rs 1,000 crore more to run tubewells due to delayed rainfall. The government failed to provide timely relief to farmers. Reports of suicides by debtridden farmers have been pouring in but government agencies are left high and dry.

The government has been slack in timely contribution for centrally-sponsored schemes. Though the financial year is coming to a close, the funds from the Centre can’t be used as the state has not been able to contribute its 40% share. The crop diversification plan too has suffered because the basmati variety could not fetch a good price, selling for just Rs 1,400 per quintal against a price of Rs 3,000 a quintal in previous years.

Same old poll recipe, with some added spice

The populist atta- dal scheme was the first poll promise to be implemented by the Badal government after coming to power in 2007. It was later credited for its second victory in a row in the 2012 elections, as the Akalis promised to make the vote-churning scheme – which covered 15.4 lakh families providing each with Rs 4 per kg wheat and Rs 20 per kg dal –more “poor-friendly” by subsidising wheat to Re 1 per kg to counter the Congress that had announced to do so.

While the government has failed to fulfil its promise of giving wheat at Re 1 a kg, beneficiaries have to shell out more on pulses – they now cost Rs 30 a kg instead of Rs 20 –to help the government tide over spiralling costs.

But the National Food Security Act, 2013, has helped the state rebrand the old scheme. The food and civil supplies department says more than half of the state’s population will get wheat at FSA rate of Rs 2 per kg and dal at Rs 30 per kg and not the rates promised in the manifesto.

The scheme entailing an annual expense of Rs 400 crore has been marred by complaints of erratic supply of pulses, undeserving beneficiaries and low-quality wheat. Another promise was doubling pension amount for senior citizens, widows, disabled and dependent children to Rs 500 per month. The government had only last month announced the hike from Rs 250 to Rs 500 per month.

As it went about weeding dead and bogus beneficiaries, the social welfare department courted controversy over eliminating some deserving ones. The number of pensioners kept fluctuating. The government has also reverted to the politically-motivated system of empowering panchayats to distribute pensions. However, it is yet to hike the Shagun scheme amount to Rs 31,000 and provide free gas connections to all BPL families. The poll promise of free five marla plots to landless poor also remains on paper.

Scams, agitations mar track record

The SAD-BJP combine made lofty promises to provide access to education and improve its quality, but its government failed to fulfil most. The educa- tion sector has hit the headlines for mostly the wrong reasons – multiple scams, irregularities in selections, teachers’ agitation and delay in giving school uniforms – during their nine years in power.

While the textbooks scam in which firms were handpicked to supply books, science lab equipment and maps to schools caused embarrassment to the government, it was also in trouble due to irregularities in the recruitment of physical training instructors. An FIR was registered but no action taken.

Despite these controversies, there have been efforts towards improving the quality of education. The state has opened seven meritorious schools for government school students scoring 80% and above and also taken measures for rationalising teachers in its schools. A lot more needs to be done.

The poll promise of one Adarsh school in all146 blocks to provide quality education to rural children is unfulfilled. The ones set up under public-private partnership have failed to deliver at most places. Their number has remained stuck at 26. Other promises such as free education up to graduation for girls and free cycles, aimed at retention and continuity, have also not seen any concrete action.

Showcasing past for future

The SAD calls itself the “sole custodian” of the rich and enviable legacy handed down to the people of Punjab by the gurus, seers and prophets. And, the sole focus of Parkash Singh Badal in his fifth stint as CM has been on building memorials of different hues. By building monuments showcasing the rich diversity, he has shrewdly attempted to leave behind a firm footprint to connect with GenNext.

Rarely a week has passed in four years without a review meeting on the status of the CM’s pet projects – the memorials. Such is the priority Badal has been according to these projects that most are set to be ready before the assembly poll bugle is sounded. The flow of funds to these projects has been smooth despite the tight financial position.

The focus of the government after dethroning the Congress in 2007 was on the completion of the prestigious Virasate-Khalsa museum at Anandpur Sahib in memory of the foundation of the Khalsa Panth. Another major monument set up in the memory of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, the saint soldier who avenged the killing of Guru Gobind Singh and was a terror till the last for the Mughals.

Jang-e-Azadi memorial and museum, as the name suggests, is coming up to showcase the contribution of Punjabis in the Indian freedom struggle. Spread over 25 acres at Kartarpur and costing more than Rs 200 crore, galleries will be constructed to highlight different movements of the freedom struggle.

Ram Tirath or Valmiki Ashram is coming up near Amritsar at a cost of Rs 180 crore. It is believed Valmiki resided and composed Ramayana there. Badal has promised it will be an engineering marvel. From this low input, high-yield politics of memorials, Badal has attempted to carve out a legacy he wants to be remembered for.

(Chitleen K Sethi, Navneet Sharma, Gurpreet Singh nibber, Prabhjit singh, Sukhdeep Kaur, Pawan Sharma)