The Tribune Interview: Jai Ram Thakur, Chief Minister Himachal Pradesh
Being a state where tourism is the mainstay for a sizeable population, the impact of the Covid pandemic on Himachal’s economy has been immense. With the total loss suffered by the state pegged at Rs 30,000 crore, the existing financial crunch could impact the state’s growth in the coming year, including several initiatives planned by the Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP regime as it completes three years in office on December 27.
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, in an interview with Special Correspondent Pratibha Chauhan, outlined his government’s roadmap for ensuring that the wheels of development are kept moving, notwithstanding constraints like the paucity of resources, spiralling unemployment and reluctance on the part of investors to push through the already-approved projects.
With the whole of this year being impacted by Covid outbreak, what is the extent of damage Himachal has suffered?
Like other states, Himachal too has suffered immensely and the total loss to the economy has been over Rs 30,000 crore. I’d be lying if I say that this will in no way impact the pace of development in the coming year, but I can assure that priority development works will not be affected. However, some of our plans will have to be put on hold in view of resource crunch.
At the same time our welfare schemes like Grahini Suvidha Yojana giving 2.86 lakh LPG connections, Sahara Yojna providing Rs 3,000 per month to 11,000 families with a terminally ill patient, Him Care under which 1.24 lakh beneficiaries have been provided treatment worth Rs 128 crore and loan subsidy under Swavlamban Yojna have brought succour to people.
To what extent have key revenue generating areas like industry and tourism been impacted?
Tourism undoubtedly has been the worst-hit sector with revenue down by almost 70 per cent. More importantly, the ripple effect of tourism taking a hit has resulted in job loss. Despite such a grim scenario, I am still of the firm opinion that it is tourism which seems to be the only ray of hope in terms of creating job avenues. Fortunately, tourist arrivals are picking up though gradually.
Industry too has been hit hard by Covid. Had it not been for the pandemic, we would have been able to hold ground breaking ceremonies for projects worth Rs 40,000 crore which now has been reduced to Rs 10,000 crore. I have no qualms in admitting that many projects, for which MoUs were signed during the Global Investors Meet in Dharamsala in November 2019, have not taken off due to Covid. This obviously has impacted both revenue as well as job creation, with both being crucial for us.
What in your opinion has been your biggest achievement so far?
For me, putting an end to the culture of vendetta politics, which had become the norm in the last 25 years, is immensely satisfying. The day I assumed office, I decided that this must end and I feel I have succeeded to a great extent. If we start probing, there will be several cases but then my priority is to focus on development and shun politics of negativity. Besides, the guilty will not be spared, if there are any irregularities as has been the case in the Health Department but not for witch-hunting.
You are also confronted with the problem of unemployment. How do you intend tackling it with several youth returning home during Covid times?
I admit that creating job avenues remains our biggest priority. However, a large percentage of the 2.50 lakh youth, who had returned home early this year due to Covid outbreak, almost 60 per cent have returned to places like Goa and Mumbai. Having prepared a data base of the youth, many have got absorbed in the industrial sector within Himachal.
It is with the blessings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that we hope to get some mega projects like bulk pharma drug park in Una and medical devices manufacturing hub and electrical devices hub in Baddi-Barotiwala, which will rake in revenue and create jobs.
Your government drew flak for poor Covid management, resulting in HP becoming pandemic hotspot with highest positivity rate. Your views?
I wouldn’t agree with this accusation as Covid peak was witnessed at different times in various parts of the country. During the initial lockdown phase, it was due to responsible social behaviour that Himachal was among the best performers but as people became too casual during social gatherings like marriages and religious ceremonies, Covid cases surged. As far as our failure to create health infrastructure to meet the challenge is concerned, nobody across the globe, including Italy and USA, could handle the surge.
However, we have beefed up our facilities. As compared to 50 ventilators then, now we have 700 besides 500 oxygen concentrators. There is no dearth of PPE kits, masks, sanitisers and medicines. Covid has been a learning experience for everyone, including us.
How do you intend improving state’s financial health?
Owing to the PM’s special affinity with Himachal, we have got Rs 952 crore monthly revenue deficit grant, Rs 300 crore share in Central taxes even though with 10 per cent decline and Rs 400 crore 40-year interest free loan, funding under externally aided projects, all of which will help us in ensuring all-round balanced development.
There is talk of dissidence, especially after the Cabinet expansion?
There is no truth in this as whatever little issues some people had have been resolved. Moreover, there are bound to be some issues in a party or government.