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It is important for Congress to give more power to regional leaders: Punjab CM Amarinder Singh

"Under the previous Punjab government, there were 7,000 farmer suicides. In the last four months of my government, 70 farmers have committed suicide," Punjab CM Amarinder Singh said.
"Under the previous Punjab government, there were 7,000 farmer suicides. In the last four months of my government, 70 farmers have committed suicide," Punjab CM Amarinder Singh said.
Even though the run-up to the Punjab assembly elections in February 2017 saw a great deal of tension between the Congress leadership and Punjab strongman Amarinder Singh, or Captain sahab as he is popularly known, he was one of the first leaders to hit the campaign trail in a big way from February 2016. His poll promises included tackling Punjab’s drug menace and steps to tackle the distress among farmers. Now, four months after his swearing-in as the chief minister of Punjab, Singh has begun work to deliver on many of his promises. In an interview with Ishani Duttagupta, he threw light on some of these areas. Edited excerpts:

You discussed the drug menace in Punjab during your election campaign at almost all your rallies and meetings. What steps are you taking to resolve this problem?
Immediately after taking over the state’s reins, my government set up the special task force (STF) under a senior police officer, which is now working closely with other state police and intelligence agencies to eliminate the menace. The results are visible on the ground. You just have to check the numbers to see the extent to which we have succeeded in addressing the problem. Till June 13, we had registered a whopping 3,845 cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, with 4,438 persons arrested (and this includes some police officers who were hand in glove with drug smugglers).

A total of 58 kg of heroin has been seized in this period, along with a host of other banned narcotics. An early assessment of the All India Association of Pharmaceutical Companies has indicated that supplies of Schedule-H drugs/ prescription drugs, which were misused in the state to produce synthetic drugs, has gone down by 40% during the last three months — a clear indication of the success of our efforts. The drug smugglers have either left the state or become dormant, having lost the government patronage they enjoyed under the previous regime.

While we are now seeing lower numbers of young people coming to the rehab centres, we are also working on creating more jobs for the youth in Punjab. To start with, we will facilitate jobs for 50,000 youngsters under various projects as taxi drivers, tractor drivers and mini bus drivers. We are also encouraging private cab-operating companies to expand their operations in the state. Over 90 lakh youth in Punjab are unemployed or underemployed, and supporting them is essential.

You have announced a loan waiver for farmers. How is your scheme different from those announced by UP and Maharashtra? How do you plan to implement it?
Debt waiver was a poll promise and we have delivered for small and marginal farmers, who constitute 65% of the state’s debt-ridden farmers. We are not looking at debt waiver as a temporary solution; rather we are exploring ways and means to permanently resolve problems of the agrarian community in the state, through crop diversification, horticulture development and other such measures that will create additional resources for income generation for farmers.

Also, unlike UP, which has announced a ceiling of Rs 1 lakh for debt waiver, we are waiving loans up to Rs 2 lakh for small and marginal farmers. This will go a long way in alleviating their woes. As far as Maharashtra is concerned, they have asked the ministers and MLAs to give up one month’s salary to support their scheme, which can at best be a temporary measure. We are going for negotiations with banks and out-of-the-box, revenue-generation schemes to settle the loans, thus creating a longterm enabling environment for resolving the issue.

Under the previous Punjab government, there were 7,000 farmer suicides. In the last four months of my government, 70 farmers have committed suicide. This cannot go on. While we are reaching out to farmers with less than 4 acres of land, we will look at expanding the scheme to others later.

You mentioned that the state finances are not in great health. How do you plan to make this scheme work?
Any step we take has to be seen in the context of our fiscal situation, despite which we are committed to ensuring that the farmers of our state are freed from their debt cycles once and for all. Our outstanding debt is estimated at Rs 2,08,000 crore and fiscal deficit at Rs 32,000 crore. The previous government had squandered money, and resources are meagre, but despite that we are going ahead with the a one-time settlement to take over the loans of small and marginal farmers. We have formed an expert group on agriculture under Dr T Haque, former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, to assess the problems of larger farmers too and will later announce measures for them as well.

How is this stint as CM different from the earlier one (2002-07)? As one of the few Congress governments in the country now, do you see an additional responsibility on yourself?
Ten years is a long time, so naturally a lot of things have changed. Compared to when I last took over as chief minister, back in 2002, I find the state this time in a bigger mess. All systems have been destroyed, the mafia has strangulated the state’s businesses, development has come to a standstill and the finances are in total chaos. The erstwhile SAD-BJP government blatantly looted the state’s resources to fill their own pockets. So the task before us this time is more gigantic. But, on the positive side, I am more confident, having learnt from my previous experiences, of tackling the situation and bringing the state back on the track of progress. The experience of my previous stint has armed me with better understanding of these problems and more capabilities to resolve them.

Are there any takeaways from your successful election campaign for the Congress in other states?
Whatever happens in Punjab usually happens in Himachal, so hopefully Congress will be successful in Himachal, which will go to the polls later this year. I’m very optimistic about the Congress party. Yes, the party has seen a low point but things will improve from here. It is, however, important for the party to give more power to regional leaders, since people in the states need to know who their leaders are.

What are your plans for reviving the industry?
We have launched a slew of initiatives to revive industrial development and investment. Basically, we need to restore the lost confidence of industry and investors by providing them a favourable environment. We have frozen power tariffs for industry at Rs 5 per unit which, I am sure, will go a long way in promoting industrial development. We are also preparing the new industrial policy, which will be focused on streamlining the processes and systems to set up and run industries in Punjab.


(In pic: Amarinder Singh with Anand Mahindra)

I have personally met all the big captains of industry, including the Ambani brothers, the Godrejs, Tatas, among others. I am happy to state that all have shown a lot of interest in investing in Punjab. We have had delegations from Japan and Israel seeking to work with us in development across some vital segments of growth.


(In pic: Amarinder Singh with Anil Ambani)

We are cognizant of the need for high-end infrastructural development to facilitate industrial growth and are working on the development of roads, air connectivity and improvement of the railway infrastructure, along with drainage and water supply systems, to ensure that industries face no problems in operating in Punjab.

Recently Punjab became the first state in the country to change the Excise Act to enable liquor sale near highways — do you see any problems arising out of this?
Firstly, let me correct you. We have not permitted sale of liquor near highways. We have not, and have no intention, to go against the Supreme Court directive on sale of liquor within the 500-km highway distance limit set by it. By amending the Act we have merely drawn a distinction between sale of liquor by liquor vends and serving of liquor at restaurants, hotels, banquets in that range. This amendment is very much in line with the spirit of the apex court’s judgement. We are not allowing anyone to sell liquor close to the highways but are simply allowing hotels and the like to serve liquor to their guests, which does not really fall under the purview of the court’s orders.

Are you working on any new plans for diaspora engagement, considering that Punjab has a large overseas population?
We have a lot of programmes and initiatives lined up for the Punjabis settled abroad. People from Punjab have made a name for themselves across the world, whichever country they are settled in, with their sincerity, grit and hard work. And these are qualities we want to nurture to the advantage of Punjab, for which we plan to work closely with the diaspora. In addition to special courts and enactment of Property Safeguards Act to protect their interests, and a comprehensive policy for redressal of issues concerning NRIs, we plan to engage the community in the state’s welfare programmes in a big way. NRIs are keen to support the government and the people of Punjab in the various welfare initiatives and we are equally keen to provide them with the platform to promote such engagement.

We will facilitate them in investing in industry and social sectors by providing them a single-window system with a 36-hour guaranteed clearance of their proposals. We also plan to set up citizen contact centres in five European cities to operate as one-stop centres for all issues of NRIs living in those countries and concerning the state of Punjab.

What are your concerns regarding the defence minister of Canada, Harjit Sajjan?
My stance on the Canadian defence minister is categorical and unequivocal. There is enough evidence to indicate that he has strong links with Khalistani extremists who are out to disrupt Punjab’s peace and stability and I will, on principled grounds, have no truck with any such person. We cannot allow Punjab to revert to the days of Khalistani terrorism, which people like Harjit Sajjan will end up doing if they continue to support extremist elements. It is for Canada’s Prime Minister now to probe those links and take suitable action. On my part, I can only say my concerns in this matter are inspired by my concern for Punjab and its people. As long as there is even an iota of proof to suggest that there is any connect whatsoever between Sajjan and the Khalistanis I will not speak to him or entertain him in any manner whatsoever. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to visit India soon; the Indian government should take up the issue of anti-India activities in Canada with him.

You are a passionate military historian and have written eight books on the topic. Will you find time to dabble in this area of interest now as chief minister?
My latest book Saragarhi and the Defence of the Samana Forts is about a heroic chapter in India’s defence history when in 1897, 22 soldiers of a Sikh regiment fought bravely in the North West Frontier Province against 8,000 Afghan Afridi tribals for seven hours, killing 200 Afghans and injuring 600, before laying down their lives. The British army is commemorating 120 years of this historic battle and I will be in London between September 8 and 12, when my book will be released there. I will also engage with members of the Indian diaspora. After the UK, I will visit Israel to ink an irrigation tie-up for horticulture in Punjab.
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