POLL VAULT 2012. Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur & Uttar Pradesh

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1. Punjab

SAD State: Rich & Spoilt

Populist schemes blithely promised by both the Congress and the SAD will take Punjab deeper into debt, reports Sai Manish

Powerlessness A protest against the Mansa power plant last year
Powerlessness A protest against the Mansa power plant last year, Photo: Prabhjot Singh Gill

PROFLIGACY IS in the air. Days before the election code of conduct came into effect, the scheme of 200 units of free power to 15 lakh poor households in Punjab was restored and outstanding tubewell bills waived. Not to be outdone, the Congress promises that free power to farmers, started 15 years ago, will continue — and flow 24×7. Joining the bidding, the Shiromani Akali Dal offered more free power and free laptops.

Whichever party wins, it will push the state to the edge of what Amarinder Singh declares “the inevitability of declaring financial emergency in Punjab”. And given Punjab’s rich and ruined status, one has to cut through the political humbug to understand the economic reality.

School children are already paying the price. In Bhadson village, Patiala district, headmaster of the government primary school, Jarmail Singh, 42, is a worried man. He rifles through the mid-day meal accounts to show that not a single paise has been sent by the state government since October last year. Local shopkeepers have already given the school provisions worth Rs 55,354 on credit. “The inspection team just comes to check the quality and quantity. They don’t even want to hear how hard it is for us to keep the scheme going. As we are teachers, shopkeepers respect us. But this can’t go on for long,” he says despairingly.

Similarly, primary schools in the nearby villages of Chahel (115 students) and Matorda (124), have run up a debt to the tune of Rs 17,160 and Rs 29,760. In the prosperous village of Roti Channa next to the Bhakra canal near Nabha, 54 children study in the primary school. At a rate of Rs 2.69 per meal and Rs 1,000 for the anganwadi worker, the school needs about Rs 5,000 every month. But the cash book shows that in August and September, the school got half the money, and none in October.

Abandoned kids Midday meals depend on the largesse of shopkeepers
Abandoned kids Midday meals depend on the largesse of shopkeepers, Photo: Ajay Verma

That is why teachers like Jagjit Singh Nohura of the Sikhiya Vikas Manch allege, “The Akalis snatched food from children for their poll expenses,” and put the amount at Rs 50 crore. But state education minister and the Akali candidate from Qadian Sewa Sekhwan brushes aside the allegation. “There are delays at times because of the Centre’s delay in releasing funds. There is not one school where the scheme has been stopped or has faced trouble.” While it is true that the meals continue, it is mostly due to the teachers’ collective efforts.

Punjab, which doesn’t have money to feed its school children but is ready to give away laptops, is clearly in denial about declining growth and de-industrialisation.

A case in point: While Amarinder Singh promises 200 units of power free to every SC/ST household, the state may face power shortfalls soon. Says Sukhdev Dhindsa, “We can always buy power from the national grid.” But given its staggering fiscal deficit of Rs 77,000 crore, this option may be switched off soon. The Akalis promised to make Punjab a power-surplus state by 2012 but has not been able to acquire land for four new thermal power plants, which are expected to generate 11,000 MW by 2014. Already there is a shortage of close to 4,000 MW, half of which was supposed to be met with two projects. One was the 2,640 MWproject given to NTPC in Manpreet Singh Badal’s constituency of Gidderbaha. The other is the 1,340 MW plant given to India Bulls in Mansa district.

While Amarinder Singh promises 200 units of power free to SC/ST households, the state is power deficient

While NTPC has not even started work due to differences with the state electricity board over the terms of the contract, the Mansa project had land acquisition issues. So bitter is the opposition of local farmers to the project that pitched battles were fought between the police and villagers, with even women and children joining in the fight with pots and pans in June last year.

Moreover, there is a writ petition in the Punjab HC that challenges the MoU route of awarding power contracts to private developers. That could further hurt private investment in the power sector. In a state that gives electricity for free, the generation by big private players would see a further hike in power tariff. Given the already burgeoning subsidies, the next CM would have little option except to pass on the unsustainable burden.

The cup of Punjab’s woes has been filled in equal measures by successive governments since free power was first introduced in 1997 by the Akalis. When Badal was ousted from power in 2002, he had increased Punjab’s debt by Rs 17,200 crore. Badal returned to power in 2007 but Amarinder Singh had added another Rs 15,000 crore to the deficit. The Badals pushed it up to a staggering Rs 77,585 crore. That means the amount of interest Punjab pays on its subsidy and populism bill every year equals its mid-day meal budget for the next 20 years!

Manpreet Badal, who claims he was expelled for talking about the growing debt burden, has ideas for the state. One of them is moving to cash crops. That will improve returns from farming and save Punjab from being destroyed by the misdirected subsidies.

The interest on the subsidy and populism bill every year equals the mid-day meal budget for 20 years

“The Jats are not willing to do the hard work and migrant labour is hard to find these days because of the success of MGNREGA across the country,” says Bhalinder Singh, a Patiala-based businessman. Instead of tinkering with micro-economic policies, he says, “We need to change the mindset of people and teach them to shake off their laziness.”

In this season of hope brought by fresh elections, he pleads for revival of the dignity of labour. “If a Punjabi Jat can go drive a truck in Canada, why cannot he work on his own fields if the Bihari labour is in short supply?” That kind of introspection, though, is rare in a Punjab teetering on the brink of financial ruin. And the next chief minister — whether it is Amarinder Singh or Sukhbir Badal — will certainly have to find a solution to the financial mess.

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Slipping On Grease

Punjab shines on the scamometer not by the scale of corruption but by its sheer spread across the political spectrum. Irrespective of which party comes to power, almost 35 percent of the Assembly will be tainted.

The BJP wriggled out of dead skin last year when it withdrew all ministers from the state Cabinet, choosing to play safe while targeting the UPA with Team Anna. Now the party wants to wriggle back into the scales it discarded. The BJP has given tickets to two of its men — Raj Khurana and Manoranjan Kalia — quizzed by the CBI in the 1.5 crore bribery case. The CBI still believes that the money was paid out in Khurana’s house. But Khurana’s winnability has secured for him the Rajpura ticket. Kalia too finds himself back in the reckoning for a seat from Jalandhar Central.

SAD has been facing cases too, with the Badal father-son duo accused of massive corruption in the transport sector by the Congress. Sohan Singh Thadal also became the first SAD minister to be convicted in cases filed by the Congress government. And despite various criminal charges against many of its top leaders, the SAD has given tickets to them to ensure it stays on course for a win.

The Congress isn’t far behind. The richest candidate in the fray, Kewal Dhillon, with assets of 136 crore, is the star candidate for the party from Barnala. Amarinder Singh’s confidant Arvind Khanna, who has a ticket, was chargesheeted by the CBI last year for receiving unapproved foreign funds. Khanna’s kith and kin are being probed for their role in the Iraq oil-for-food scam and defence deals cut by them due to their proximity with former external affairs minister Natwar Singh.

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Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
sai.manish@tehelka.com