Himachal Pradesh chief minister JAI RAM THAKUR is completing three years of his tenure on 27 December in the looming shadow of the Covid pandemic, which has devastated the economy of the state.
The five-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Mandi district and first time CM, Thakur, 55, faced the formidable challenge of dealing with the pandemic just as he was trying to tighten his grip on the state’s administrative and political affairs.
His apparent simplicity, accessibility and hard work might stand him in good stead while negotiating the tricky tightrope for the remaining two years of his tenure in the hill state whose economy has been battered by the pandemic headwinds.
In an interview with ARCHANA PHULL, he shared his thoughts on a range of issues. Excerpts:
Q. How do you see your performance in the last three years?
A. In a real sense, Covid reduced it from three to two years. We have got the experience of working with so many hurdles in one year. But even in Covid crisis, we have not let the development works suffer in Himachal. After lockdown, the government has laid foundation stones and inaugurated development schemes worth Rs 1,558 crore. A big thing is that so far all the chief ministers of HP worked in a favourable environment. There were natural calamities for some days in the rainy season. But Covid is a lifetime experience. Nobody has experienced such a long crisis. It was a challenge to pass such a crisis without preparedness. Even otherwise, the present government worked with a new vision. We did not carry out political vendetta and there is no issue against the government even after three years.
Q.What about the financial situation in HP?
A. It is not good. When we took over, the state already had a debt burden of Rs 47,000 crore. It was not possible for any government to manage without loans in such a situation. But we checked the speed of taking loans and the volume. The total loan on state is now Rs 56,000 crore. Covid caused GDP losses of Rs 4,000 crore in the state. The economy on the whole suffered losses to the tune of Rs 30,000 crore since March 2020.
Q. How difficult was it to handle Covid? Where did HP falter?
A. Covid situation has been unpredictable. We did our best to prevent it and monitor it daily. The peak came in different states at different times. Initially, Covid management was good in Kerala and HP. But now Kerala has gone worse and there is a spike in Covid cases in HP over the last three months. It is because of the casual approach of people in social gatherings, where 100, 150 Covid cases were reported in one go. However, there is some drop in cases after we took strict decisions. We can’t leave it on the people anymore. There is a need for more public awareness on the issue.
Q. The government has blamed people for the spike in Covid cases in HP. What about political functions?
A. Political functions did take place, but the number of cases recorded there were not much. I am not justifying, but the political rallies were held in open with proper distancing. The social gatherings and marriages were mostly arranged indoors, which led to spread.
Q. Why have you chosen to go ahead with Panchayat polls in the state in January 2021. Couldn’t they be postponed?
A. The Panchayat polls could have been postponed given the current Covid scenario. Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh did it. The State Election Commission had asked us also. There was much hullabaloo by the Opposition Congress when we cancelled the winter session of the state Assembly in Dharamshala earlier this month. Our analysis is that when we are prepared for Panchayat polls, why should we give political opportunity to Congress party to raise hue and cry over this issue also.
Q. Does the state have proper facilities to deal with Covid patients even today?
A. If we do not have a facility, the Congress has to be blamed for this as it ruled the state for decades. When Covid started we had just 50 ventilators in the state. We now have 700 ventilators. It was not easy but we ensured make-shift hospitals, proper oxygen supply and other facilities to handle the crisis. HP did not have a virus testing facility earlier and the samples were either sent to Pune or Delhi. It happened when the first Covid death took place in Dharamshala. Now we can do 10,000 tests in a day in HP.
Q. Congress alleged that your government blindly followed the Centre without any local strategy?
A. It is totally wrong. The Centre gave some basic guidelines to states. We worked out our own strategy to check Covid in HP. HP did the Active Case Finding for Covid and had the system of passes and registration on border. Around 2 lakh people, who came from outside during lockdown, followed this process and they were quarantined and tested on the border before letting them in.
Q. The Congress alleges that your government failed on all fronts. What do you have to say on this?
A. Congress has played a negative role since beginning in this tenure. We never expected that they would make even the Covid crisis a political tool. They talk about HP. But what has happened in Punjab, where the number of deaths are more than active cases of HP? We did the best possible work amid Covid and took several other development and welfare initiatives for the state and its people in three years. There is a leadership crisis in Congress, and every leader is just trying to outshine the other by sensationalising issues.
Q. Union minister of state for finance Anurag Thakur has been subtly critical of you. Do you see him as a political threat within the BJP?
A. Whatever assignment has been given to me, I am doing it. Similarly Anurag Thakur and Jagat Prakash Nadda are doing their duties. Whatever issue Anurag Thakur raised recently on central university, it had nothing to do with the state government, the state has played its role and it is now on to the Centre.
Q. What is your administrative challenge? How has the role of bureaucracy been in the state?
A. The role of bureaucrats in the entire country is a cause for concern, whether it is about work or commitment. The CMs of different states often raise this issue. There are some officers in Himachal, who are to be told time and again. But now their era is over. We will not tolerate such hurdles and will keep such officers without work. We have already given them enough time and will take action if they don’t improve.
Q. What is on your agenda for the next two years ?
A. Let this Covid era finish. There are difficulties, but the development will certainly pick up pace. We have been putting in every effort with honesty for overall development and welfare of people without any biases. We will keep doing that. We will ensure that the trend of change in power after five years is checked this time.
Q. How do you analyse the farmers’ agitation against the Modi government?
A. The same amendments were taken up during the UPA regime in the past and the issue came up time and again. If the BJP-led government has done it today, there is nothing wrong in it. People are being misled on the issue.
Q. How do you look at increasing unemployment in the country?
A. I see it as a global issue in the present context. Whatever we can do to tackle it, we are doing.
Q.What about rising prices?
A. Prices can be checked when we come out of the Covid era. The situation will definitely change.