Himachal Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene and help the rain-ravaged hill state. Agnihotri added that considering the crisis that has arisen due to heavy rains and landslides, it should be declared a national calamity.
Agnihotri, who also holds the portfolio of Jal Shakti Vibhag, Road Transport and Language, Art and Culture, has been travelling all over the state to assess the damage and supervise relief and rehabilitation work.
He mentioned that the state government has paced up the rehabilitation and restoration process by mobilising all the resources but it won’t be possible without the Centre’s continuous support.
The five-time MLA and former Leader of Opposition in an exclusive interview with the Senior Executive Editor Aditya Kant while blaming the previous BJP government for the poor financial health of the state claimed that the Centre should help speed up the relief and repair work in the state and immediately announce a special package for Himachal on priority.
Q: You have been visiting the rain-ravaged areas of the state, what is your assessment so far?
A: The loss to life and property has been massive due to unprecedented rains, floods and landslides. Water supply schemes, irrigation schemes and hydro-power projects most of which are close to the rivers were severely damaged. Due to landslides, roads have been damaged and public transport has been badly affected. More than 380 lives have been lost. Over 2,460 houses have been damaged completely and more than 10,700 houses have been damaged partially. The loss to the property has been over Rs 12,000 crore. There were several heavy rain spells yet we have the satisfaction that the drinking water facility was restored to the residents in the worst-affected areas within no time. The local transport facilities too are being restored wherever possible.
Q: How far is it right to call it a natural disaster when it’s a known fact that the reckless construction and mindless development have resulted in soil erosion and subsequent landslides?
A: One must admit that the developmental model has failed. ‘Vikas ke saath Vinaash ka model taiyyaar ho raha hai’ (Development has led to destruction).
Population has risen and construction activity is being carried out on a massive scale while there is no proper space for drainage. The streets and passages in some places are so narrow and congested that even the dead bodies cannot be carried out for funerals. The four-lane stretches of highways got washed away at several places, bridges collapsed and no retaining walls were constructed by the riverside. The union government must review the project and realise that the ecology cannot be destroyed in the name of development.
Q: Leaders from the Centre including Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and BJP President JP Nadda besides others have visited the state and have also announced a relief package for the state. Are you satisfied with the Centre’s aid?
A: The magnitude of loss and damage in the state has been huge. The state is already in a financial mess due to the previous BJP government. We would require more funds and help from the Centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has always made public his special bond with Himachal should now intervene and help the state to come out of misery by announcing a special relief package. The union government should declare the situation arising out of heavy rains as a national disaster.
Q: Which are the areas of focus that need special attention? How is the government ensuring that the extent of damage is minimised in the eventuality of such disasters in future?
A: Several parts of the state have been affected due to landslides and flash floods. Massive devastation has been observed along the banks of Beas, besides damage to the highways due to landslides. Areas in lower Himachal of the state including those in Kangra have also been badly affected. In fact, Beas has a history of such occurrences in the past. Jal Shakti Vibhag has prepared a detailed project report as per which an expenditure of Rs 1,669 crore will be required for the channelisation of Beas. This has been done after conducting model studies with the help of Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) Pune.
We have already requested the Union Minister Gajender Shekhawat to approve the plan, which would help safeguard the life and property of people, particularly in Kullu-Manali. Besides, the government will conduct a geological survey to ascertain the reason behind the crumbling of hills.
Q: How will this channelisation help in the long run?
A: Besides ensuring the safety of the residents, the channelisation of Beas river has its strategic importance as Kullu-Manali airport and the Chandigarh-Leh National Highway both lie on the banks of this river. It would ensure the safe movement of tourists besides transportation of horticulture and agricultural produce from the Kullu and Lahaul valley, which was severely affected during this monsoon due to damaged roads.
Q: How effective have the relief measures been so far?
A: The government is committed to the rehabilitation of displaced people and will ensure that the relief measures reach people. I have been touring the disaster-hit areas and the entire government machinery is working to restore life in the state. We will ensure that the shortage of funds does not come in our way of providing relief to the affected families.
Q: The financial health of the state is poor and your government has been raising concern over the heavy debt the state is in. How is the government going to commit itself to relief and rehabilitation work?
A: The state is in a “financial mess” due to the “extravagant” spending by the previous BJP government that took loans to the tune of Rs 25,000 crore. Our government inherited a debt of 75,000 crore. We are mindful of the financial condition and all austerity measures are being taken. While we are doing our every bit, the union government will have to loosen the purse strings and provide aid in accordance with the magnitude of the loss. There is an urgent need for funds for the restoration of water supply schemes, irrigation schemes and water-related infrastructure which have been badly damaged due to incessant rains. The central government should announce a special package for Himachal and release the funds so that these works can be started. Also, the government needs to approve the new projects for the Beet and Kutler area in Una district. At present, these proposals are pending with the union government for approval. We have also requested the Centre to fund more irrigation schemes. This includes one scheme in Chango area of Kinnaur which has already been submitted to CWC for review and 20 such irrigation scheme proposals which will require Rs 61 crore and are ready for submission once the comments from Central Water Commission CWC are received.
Q: The Himachal Pradesh Assembly passed the Water Cess on Hydropower Generation Bill 2023 on March 16. Your government’s decision to impose a cess on power generation has been opposed by the neighbouring Punjab. Your views?
A: The state has the right to impose any tax on the use of water since water is the state subject. Also, we are not the first ones to do so. Water cess has already been imposed by Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir. The Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, does not prohibit the state from imposing water cess on power generation for the use of water and there is no bar on imposition of water cess under Section 7 of this Act.
Q: What are your other priorities for the state right now?
A: We are committed to enhancing irrigation facilities in the state, as it is far below the national average. Also, the repair of the Beas river bank, restoration of all roads damaged across the state including National Highways, and relief to horticulturists and agriculturists who have lost land to landslides, and those who have lost their hearth and homes. Also, we need to revisit various hydro-power projects and check their feasibility.