An agenda for Punjab
Gobind Thukral - South Asia Post - November 15, 2010
Gobind Thukral - South Asia Post - November 15, 2010
THE debate rages on. The tone has been set by former finance minister and expelled Akali Manpreet Singh Badal, legislator from Gidderbaha. Anyone and everyone who has a stake in politics in this hapless state of Punjab have joined the bandwagon. The newly appointed and not elected Punjab Congress president Capt. Amarinder Singh came out the moment he got his nomination announced by the powerful Mrs. Sonia Gandhi with his comments on the sad tale of Punjab’s Punjab fiscal health and offered a detailed solution to restore its health. Deputy Chief Minister and the ruling Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal and his cousin Manpreet Singh are engaged in a no hold barred running debate, at times reducing it to a farce. If Manpreet Singh says that the state cannot afford to burden itself anymore with its mounting debt that has already crossed Rs 70,000 crore, entailing an annual debt servicing of Rs 8,000 crore and subsidies have to be restructured, Sukhbir Singh takes a dig and says we cannot allow the poor to starve to death. Debt or no debt we shall move on by helping the farmers and the poor.
Every leader’s eyes as the wont are set on 2012 Punjab assembly elections. The Congress has chosen Capt. Amarinder Singh to lead and Akalis are coming around to accept that their old war horse and four times chief minister Parkash Singh Badal would be anointing his only son Sukhbir Singh as the chief minister to lead them during the battle royal for political power in Punjab. Will that happen? Even Sukhbir Singh does not know. Even the senior Badal who keeps tossing the pros and cons has not clear answer. The answer is in the womb of future. Meanwhile, Sukhbir Singh is the de facto chief minister and his father letting him to be one.
Manpreet Singh is touring Punjab and is drawing respectable crowds and Punjab would soon witness the birth of a new political party, a new Akali Dal. The Congress has shut doors on him and he has vowed never to look at the party and prefer death to joining that grand old party of India. This could happen on November 14 when he pays his obeisance at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Though he claims some kind of romantic relationship with Marxism, his source of strength would be religion as according to his own description he is a born Akali. His political graph would depend on how he organises his new party and offer a credible third alternative. But he could very well spoil the chances of Akalis once again capturing power as he could upset their victories in the Malwa.
Meanwhile, the brave people of Punjab should be ready to bear another doze of taxes. The newly appointed finance minister Dr Upinderjit Kaur the day she took over spoke about the critical fiscal situation and urged the public to be ready for harsh times and sacrifices. To say that Punjab is becoming a laggard state is to say the obvious. Haryana once a poor cousin has left it far behind if we consider economic development parameters like growth of manufacturing and service sectors. Haryana today manufactures half of the cars of the country and 75 per cent of two wheelers. Its per capita plan expenditure is more than double of Punjab.
Punjab’s present economic situation is pathetic. The state is heading for a debt trap, which means taking more loan to pay the existing loan. Any further slip-up can lead to a loan default, non-payment of staff salaries and invite the President’s Rule for a financial breakdown. The stakes are high. In the past three years, the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine has borrowed Rs 7,000 crore annually to push the state’s debt to Rs 71,000 crore. It pays Rs 8,000 crore as interest annually. Before that the Congress government, too, had resorted to borrowings to run the affairs of the state. It is true that Punjab is not alone in the country to facer this dire situation and it is not the fault of the state governments alone.
Over the past four decades, the union government has gathered more fiscal powers and all elastic revenue resources to leave little scope for the states to find ways to meet their plan and other expenditures. The development burden, however, rests with the states. Once upon a time Akalis were vocal for more fiscal powers, more autonomy. The Anandpur Sahib resolution which was much maligned by the Congress had its core linked to these powers and autonomy. Tragically it has forgotten its past commitments and lost its ideological moorings in the process. The present Akali Dal is just pale copy of the old feisty Akali Dal. India, tragically, is becoming a unitary form of government and thus creating problems of governance for itself. If anyone has doubt then listen to what Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah is talking about.
But the point how has Punjab to come out of the present debt trap and develop. Much has been stated about the center’s offer and the refusal of the present Badal government to accept it. According to the previous finance minister some key conditions, which Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had included were cut power subsidy from Rs 3,100 crore to 1,000 crore in five years , hike irrigation water charges , impose property tax , stop Rs 200 crore loss of the Punjab Roadways and the PRTC , sell the state stakes in sick PSUs , ensure a CAG audit of local bodies, the Punjab Infrastructure Development Fund and the Rural Development Fund , introduce change-in-land-use charges, no premature withdrawals from the PF by employees , collections by government agencies be put in Consolidated Fund.
The government which is hiking the bus fare by 20 per cent to raise Rs 4,000 crore yearly could have bargained with the union government and got something in return. The proposal should not have been rejected out of hand and tuned into a family feud. Correspondingly important are the issues of governance, reforms in administration and control over expenditure. Let the rulers have some pity empathy for the people of Punjab.