In December 2022, Himachal Pradesh became the second State after Karnataka to get a Congress government, dislodging the incumbent BJP. The Congress’ success was all the more creditable because it was achieved without Virbhadra Singh, its six-time Chief Minister who passed away in 2021. It found a new Chief Minister in Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, who has risen from the ranks and is known for his organisational skills. Sukhu faced his biggest challenge when Himachal Pradesh experienced unprecedented monsoon rain in July and August 2023, resulting in 500 deaths and widespread destruction, and losses were estimated at around Rs.10,000 crore.
In this interview to Frontline, Sukhu has accused the Centre of stepmotherly treatment. Excerpts:
You have completed one year in office. What would you say are your significant achievements? You promised a vyavastha parivartan [systemic change]. Has that happened?
We changed many decade-old laws and regulations in the last year. We took charge at a time when the State was facing one of its worst economic situations. Our main objective was to bring the State back on track. We delegated powers. We created a Special Budget to focus on our natural resources and ecological wealth.
We are committed to creating a Green State by 2026, which means promoting green hydrogen and non-polluting industries like information technology, food processing, and hydro-tourism. We have put in place an open policy and will facilitate whosoever wants to set up such industries. Due to these efforts, for the first time since Independence, we were able to add Rs.1,100 crore in the treasury to last us until 2024. This is the first step of vyavastha parivartan.
One of the promises you made in your manifesto was to regularise contractual jobs and implement the Old Pension Scheme. How far have you progressed?
We said we would regularise contractual jobs within two years. And such jobs in any case get automatically regularised within two years. One of our guarantees was to give the Old Pension Scheme to government employees on humanitarian grounds. People have already started getting it. But then there was a 24 per cent reduction in the budgeted estimates of Central grants (2023-24) as compared to the revised estimates for 2022-23.
Despite the obvious hurdles, we want to make a difference. We have 4,000 orphans in the State. We designated them as “children of the State” by law and are committed to providing them housing, employment, education, and marriage expenses. We will take punitive action against officers who fail to implement the scheme. This scheme is totally unique to our State. We will also increase the budget for tourism substantially.
The previous government made many controversial appointments in universities and the government, which also became an election issue. What course corrections have your government initiated?
In the tenure of the previous government, there were question paper leaks in police recruitment examinations, corruption in the Subordinate Services Selection Board (SSSB) and in appointments in universities, and scams in mining. The former government cancelled the police recruitment exams but did not do anything further.
We dissolved the SSSB, which was a den of corruption; cancelled the papers; and arrested the people involved in the corruption. We are now doing the same through the Public Service Commission and have set up a new selection committee. On irregular appointments in universities, we have set up a high-level inquiry.
One of the major challenges your government faced was the monsoon-related havoc that took a toll on life and property. What help did you receive from the Central government?
We got nothing from the Centre. We received only the routine allocation [a part of Central taxes are reserved for disasters and allocated to all States]. We expected that the Central government would help us just as it had in the natural disasters in Bhuj [Gujarat] and Kedarnath [Uttarakhand]. We discussed a resolution brought in by the BJP [for relief from the Centre] in the Assembly for three days. We considered the resolution as our own and hoped the BJP would support it when we sent it to the Centre. We also felt it would help us get some special relief package from the Centre.
We hoped the disaster would be treated as a national calamity, but it wasn’t. As many as 16,000 homes were destroyed, 4,000 homes were swept away, and 500 people died. There was large-scale destruction of crops and livestock. Not only was it not declared a national calamity, we received no special package either.
We filed a claim of Rs.10,000 crore in damages as per Central government norms. We hoped we would get at least Rs.4,000-5,000 crore but have not received anything so far. We cut our own budgetary resources and disbursed Rs.41 crore as a special relief package. The response from the people was very encouraging. Children contributed from their piggy banks; ordinary people—pensioners, small traders, autorickshaw drivers, taxi drivers—collected some Rs.250 crore among themselves to contribute for relief measures. Money is not everything, it is the sentiment that counts, and I am ever so grateful to the people of Himachal for standing by me.
We revised some antiquated norms too. Under the existing norms, only Rs.1.5 lakh is allocated for rebuilding a house. For partially damaged houses, the relief amount is Rs.5,000. We felt these amounts needed to be revised as they were highly inadequate. I changed the laws and allocated Rs.7 lakh for each of the 4,000 completely destroyed homes. We also made similar allocations for those whose homes were partially damaged. They were in any case living in kutcha homes that were completely ruined.
Then, we told those who were in rehabilitation camps that the government would pay the rent on their behalf in both rural and urban locations. We provided them with free gas and power connections. We restored water supply and road connectivity and ensured that people were able to return to their normal lives.
When the disaster struck, 75,000 tourists were stuck in Kullu. We managed to rescue all of them. In Chandertal, 250 tourists were stranded. The snow was 4 to 6 feet deep and the Air Force gave up, fearing mishaps. We got JCBs to remove the snow and rescued all the tourists. The NITI Aayog, the World Bank, and even the former BJP Chief Minister Shanta Kumar appreciated our efforts.
Given the frequency of disasters in the Himalayan region, there is a general concern about projects and unbridled construction.
Himachal Pradesh is considered the “lungs” of northern India. Unlike Uttarakhand, almost 68 per cent of the State is forest land. The disaster in July happened due to continuous rains from April-May onwards. The landslides got converted to mud slides when the rains intensified in July. When roads are made, landslides will happen. In 100 km of road, if a landslide occurs in 1 km of road, where the strata is soft, then it does not mean that it is because of incorrect “cutting” of the hillside or road alignment.
Climate change is a big factor. We never used to get rainfall in Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti. For the first time, we have had heavy rain and snowfall too in these regions in July. We are trying to reduce our carbon emissions. Under the policy changes introduced by us, we are going to convert all the national highways into green corridors. We are also incentivising tourist operators to switch to electric vehicles.
We have roads laid out for 28,000 km; small landslides keep occurring. The only sources of revenue are tourism and hydel power. But we do not get much by way of royalty from either Central or private projects, the output of which goes to other States. We have extended the length of power projects to 40 years now. We plan to enter into agreements with States on projects.
“We have increased the number of green belts in Shimla and disallowed habitations near rivers and nullahs.”Sukhvinder Singh SukhuChief Minister, Himachal Pradesh
Geologists have pointed out that not just structural engineering of buildings but more geohydrological assessments of slopes and more land-use planning are needed. What is your understanding on this?
These are academic questions. People have gone and settled in river basins. Every river has its own course, and history has it that rivers often change course. When rivers go dry, people build on the floodplains, and these very structures get submerged when the river fills up or changes course.
In the hills, the British constructed eight-storied buildings with good technology which are still standing. The 100-year-old government Secretariat and the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies building are still going strong.
We did not pay attention to structural engineering. People began constructing on the hills without checking for pillar strength or mud strength. They have constructed four or more storeys where the pillar strength can take the load of only two. We have increased the number of green belts in Shimla and disallowed habitations near rivers and nullahs.
There are also contrary views on the impact of tunnelling through mountains for projects.
In hills, tunnelling is the best solution. Today there are tunnels under the sea. Many of our power projects have been implemented using tunnelling technology. Tunnels have been made in many hilly regions of the world, and have lasted.
The problem is when substandard tunnelling is undertaken due to cost-cutting. I have lived most of my life in the hills. The British made 103 tunnels some hundred years ago from Kalka to Shimla for a railway line. They made other tunnels in Shimla too. The technology was not all that sophisticated then. Those tunnels still endure.
The Lok Sabha election is a few months away. The Congress’ performance in the State has been dismal in the last two general elections. Do you see your party’s performance improving?
Electoral politics in India is not easy to predict. Things can move in any direction in the next five months. Sometimes, things change even 20 days before the actual polling happens. The Congress is in a good position I think. I think there is a generational shift in our society. People are desirous of change. The next election will be tough for the BJP. We will project the stepmotherly treatment of the Centre towards Himachal Pradesh in our campaign.
What more does the Congress need to do to win the 2024 election?
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was very effective. It brought people together. People got the impression that a party that was in the opposition was ready to help them. This was not appeasement. It struck a chord. People could relate to Rahul Gandhi.
Do you think the INDIA grouping is a workable one?
The basic concept of the alliance is a workable one. National and regional parties will need to work together with a clear-cut understanding on adjustment of seats. It is important that they should not cut into each other’s votes.