Hindustan Times (Amritsar) - - Front Page - RAMESH VINAYAK n ramesh.vinayak@hin­dus­tan­times.com

CHANDI­GARH: He is third in the hi­er­ar­chy of 10-mem­ber cab­i­net of the Cap­tain Amarinder Singh-led Congress gov­ern­ment in Pun­jab. But, in its first six months in of­fice, Navjot Sidhu, 54, who holds the port­fo­lios of lo­cal bod­ies and cul­ture, has out­shone his col­leagues as a news­maker.

From his dogged push for ac­tion against the Fast­way cable com­pany, to bust­ing scams in his depart­ment, to a widely ap­plauded ap­point­ment of leg­endry poet Sur­jit Patar at the helm of the state’s apex cul­tural coun­cil, Sidhu has shaken things up. But, the crick­eter-turned-fire­brand politi­cian rev­els in the Badal-bash­ing, his USP which — cou­pled with a clean im­age — makes him a man to be watched in Pun­jab pol­i­tics. Se­nior Res­i­dent Ed­i­tor Ramesh Vinayak

in­ter­viewed Sidhu on Fri­day. Ex­cerpts:

What are the key chal­lenges be­fore your gov­ern­ment?

We are in the process of a dam­age-con­trol ex­er­cise. That dam­age, if not con­trolled, can be ir­repara­ble and reach a point from where you will not be able to re­cover. Pun­jab is al­ready on the brink of precipice. We have to pull it back. For any devel­op­ment, you will need money. Our biggest chal­lenge is to in­crease the state’s in­come. We can give peo­ple hope, but a man of words and not of deeds is like a gar­den full of weeds. Our in­tent is the re­nais­sance. In other words, the re­vival of Pun­jab with re­solve.

Have your blueprinted pri­or­i­ties of the lo­cal bod­ies depart­ment?

My depart­ment’s man­date is to pro­vide ba­sic ameni­ties to ur­ban cit­i­zens, that is, 45% of the state. They had voted over­whelm­ingly for us. So, as grat­i­tude, we owe it to them. Our fore­most chal­lenge is to pro­vide drink­ing water. When the gov­ern­ment prom­ises 170 litres of water per capita, it doesn’t mean worm-in­fested, flu­o­ride-heavy or can­cer­laden water. In Pun­jab, wa­ter­borne dis­eases are an epi­demic. To fix that, we first have to ac­cept our faulty pri­or­i­ties. Right now, canal water fit for hu­man con­sump­tion is be­ing used for ir­ri­ga­tion, while ground­wa­ter that is heav­ily pol­luted by sewage, pes­ti­cides and in­sec­ti­cides is sup­plied as potable water. This will be re­versed in two years. A Rs 2,000-crore project aided by Asian Devel­op­ment Bank and World Bank has been ini­ti­ated.

What’s the cur­rent state of your depart­ment?

Not a sin­gle au­dit has been done in any of the civic bod­ies in 10 years. There is a hue and cry that we’ve stopped the on­go­ing projects. That’s be­cause we are scru­ti­n­is­ing ev­ery work al­lot­ted by the pre­vi­ous (SAD-BJP) gov­ern­ment. In those works, cor­rup­tion charam seema par hai (has gone to the ex­treme). The Gov­ern­ment of In­dia wrote to Pun­jab in 2007 to in­tro­duce e-gov­er­nance; 70% of the states did, but not Pun­jab. Rea­son: it would have shut the po­lit­i­cally pa­tro­n­ised coun­ters of cor­rup- tion. Now, there is so much re­sis­tance from within to my ef­forts to make peo­ple ac­count­able by bring­ing in e-gov­er­nance wherein the gov­ern­ment will have no in­ter­face with the tax­payer. That is the only way. No­body will be able pocket gov­ern­ment money. I have done two au­dits so far and faced so much re­sis­tance. No big com­pany is ready to take up the au­dit and ex­pose cor­rup­tion of the pre­vi­ous regime. But we will en­sure au­dit of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties ev­ery year. It’s a dif­fi­cult job. You have to face flak. So be it. Ek inch nahin pichhe

ha­toonga (I won’t back down).

Per­cep­tion is that you are busier ex­pos­ing scan­dals than gov­ern­ing.

How do you ex­pect me to fix things un­less I ex­pose the rot and the guilty? Here, the more I dig the more I find. Can you imag­ine the heights of em­bez­zle­ment when the gov­ern­ment’s money is shifted from gov­ern­ment ac­counts to pri­vate ac­counts? We did ran­dom checks at four places, and de­tected 70 such frauds. Mind you, it’s the tip of the ice­berg. Look at the ten­ders! Only in the rarest of rare cases do the rules per­mit a sin­gle-bid ten­der. But, we found such ten­ders worth Rs 600 crore in Rs 1,000-crore projects. Rules were flouted brazenly. I’m nei­ther spar­ing of­fi­cers nor politi­cians.

It ap­pears the depart­ment is a to­tal mess.

It has al­ways been so. Name one cor­po­ra­tion that has money! All are bank­rupt. Half the mu­nic­i­pal bod­ies can’t pay salaries. This is what I have in­her­ited

Isn’t that be­cause of the pop­ulist poli­cies of suc­ces­sive govern­ments?

That’s one fac­tor. The biggest rea­son is that civic bod­ies, which cater to al­most half the state’s pop­u­la­tion, get only 5% of rev­enue share. Ei­ther you per­mit them to earn money through taxes, or give money to them. Nei­ther of the two has hap­pened. Now, I will bite the bul­let.

In the na­tional Swachh City sur­vey, Pun­jab ranks among the worst. Of 434 cities, Muk­t­sar is at 428, your home town Pa­tiala, 411, and Am­rit­sar that your rep­re­sent is at 258.

That’s the sorry state of af­fairs we have in­her­ited. They (SAD-BJP) built 64 sewage treat­ment plants spend­ing Rs 700 crore. Not even one is work­ing. Ditto for solid waste man­age­ment plants. They are not get­ting any garbage. Yet, in­flated long-term con­tracts for garbage col­lec­tion were signed and doled out as po­lit­i­cal favours. And now, when we want to scrap them, the con­trac­tors have gone to courts. So, there is no col­lec­tion of garbage nor seg­re­ga­tion. The mu­nic­i­pal cor­po­ra­tions are help­less.

You are blam­ing the pre­vi­ous regime for ev­ery­thing. How will you fix things?

The mis­deeds of 20 years can­not be un­done in two years. But, as a leader, I have to turn ob­sta­cles into stepping stones to­wards suc­cess. Rais­ing the state’s in­come is at the top of my agenda. Which is why I am cry­ing hoarse for an ad­ver­tise­ment pol­icy. Haryana has 82 cities and is earn­ing Rs 200 crore from hoard­ings. We have 164 cities and earn only Rs 20 crore! At its fag end, the last gov­ern­ment al­lot­ted sev­enyear con­tracts and for­feited fu­ture rev­enue.Then, Fast­way com­pany that had the Badals’ pa­tron­age evaded tax of ₹400 crore a year be­cause the cable net­work was not taxed.

But you didn’t have your way on a probe against Fast­way. Why is that?

I will have my way. The cab­i­net asked me to give a so­lu­tion. We are mak­ing a law on en­ter­tain­ment tax. The draft is un­der vet­ting. Tax evaders will be held ac­count­able. We ex­pect Fast­way to pay up Rs 500 crore a year. GST al­lows us to im­pose amuse­ment tax on cin­e­mas which alone will mean Rs 700 crore.

How about hard steps such as prop­erty tax, water cess?

We will first give fa­cil­i­ties and then tax the cit­i­zens. Ar­rears of Rs 400 crore in prop­erty and water tax are pend­ing be­cause the Akali-BJP gov­ern­ment never re­cov­ered them. But, af­ter they lost power, their may­ors who were still in of­fice is­sued the hefty bills so that theekra Cap­tain sarkar te phutte (the blame falls on the Cap­tain gov­ern­ment).

The Congress man­i­festo promised to es­tab­lish an Ur­ban In­fra­struc­ture Devel­op­ment Fund. What’s the progress?

I will stand by all that. But I came to the Congress just 16 days be­fore elec­tions. Did you see my agenda?

Your agenda can’t be dif­fer­ent from that of the party; can it?

I will do my best to ful­fil the man­i­festo prom­ises. But I have a sep­a­rate agenda, too. That is about how to in­crease the state’s in­come — whether it is cable TV , mines or liquor or trans­port. Haryana has Rs 1,700 crore sur­plus on buses. Pun­jab trans­port depart­ment, which is a third big­ger than Haryana’s, is un­der a debt of Rs 500 crore. Have you heard that lux­ury buses are taxed at Rs 1.5 per km while tut­tian-bha­jjian (ram­shackle) PRTC buses are taxed at Rs 5 per km! The pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment turned cor­rup­tion into a fine art, plun­dered the state re­sources, and filled the cof­fers of one fam­ily.

Are you for go­ing af­ter the Badals too?

When­ever I get the chance to de­cide, I will stop their cor­rup­tion. The fam­ily or their op­er­a­tors have to be put through a proper pro­ce­dure. Vig­i­lance is not in my hands. Any­body who has that ac­tu­ally has to take the de­ci­sion.

But Capt Amarinder Singh is wary of po­lit­i­cal vendetta?

Pun­ish­ing a wrongdoer is not po­lit­i­cal vendetta; it is jus­tice [Raises voice]. Whoso­ever com­mits a wrong, whether from our party or others, tang deyo (take them to task)! Some­one has to stand up and say ‘Pun­jab first’. I won’t let hopes of the peo­ple shat­ter. Hope is the biggest tope (can­non). It is be­cause of this be­lief that my wife and I have won seven elec­tions, and lost none. I am not here for per­sonal gain. I will not be a mute spec­ta­tor to Pun­jab’s de­struc­tion.

Sukhbir Badal ac­cuses you of hin­der­ing his ur­ban projects?

Sukhbir is the biggest gappi (bluffer) of the cen­tury. He de­serves an award for that. What projects is he talk­ing about? The bus ply­ing on river water? That paani-wala gharukka (water-rid­ing ve­hi­cle) cost the state Rs 9 crore and earned Rs 20,000! The BRTS in Am­rit­sar is still­born and was launched five months be­fore the polls to get credit. Ulta chor kot­wal ko daante (Pot is call­ing the ket­tle black).

How do you look at your gov­ern­ment’s per­for­mance?

Good in­tent! But, good in­ten­tions die un­less they are ex­e­cuted. You have given those rob­bers 10 years, give us at least 10 months.

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