PUNISHING A WRONGDOER IS NOT POLITICAL VENDETTA: SIDHU
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.