Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu completes 100 days as the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh on Monday. Firmly in the saddle, he said he was here not for enjoying power but for vyavastha parivartan — radical change in governance.
In his maiden Budget last week, first-time Chief Minister Sukhu outlined his vision for Himachal’s transition to clean energy and sought to address the state’s concerning fiscal situation by mobilising resources by imposing cesses and cutting wasteful state expenditure.
However, some of Sukhu’s decisions regarding social sectors, especially for destitute and orphans at shelter homes, have raised appreciations. His closure of institutions opened under the previous state administration of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Jairam Thakur has also come under criticism.
Moreover, 58-year-old Sukhu faces tough challenges of fulfilling tall electoral promises, such as the implementation of Old Pension Scheme (OPS) and other sops that are likely to strain Himachal’s fiscal situation.
In an interview with Ashwani Sharma of Outlook at Chief Minister’s official residence Oak-Over, Sukhu spoke on the priorities of his government, the challenges he faces, and the various aspects of the Congress government in Himachal. Edited excerpts:
Hundred days in Chief Minister’s Office, have you been able to get a grip over the government?
There is no doubt about it. Things are very much in line. We inherited a precarious fiscal situation in the state from the previous BJP government. Yet we will not allow the pace of development to be affected.
Along with that, I have duty towards people to provide good governance. Himachal is seeing a generational change. A new leadership is developing. We are not in the power for gratification but for vyavastha parivartan — radical change in governance.
I propose to develop Himachal Pradesh as a 'Green Energy State' by March 31, 2026. We have decided to adopt a development agenda that suits state's clean environment and its fragile mountain ecology.
What are your focus areas in the pursuit of making Himachal Pradesh a 'Green Energy State'?
We are going to harness solar energy in a big way. The target is to start solar energy projects with 500 MW capacity. The state will give 40 per cent subsidy to youths to set up solar power projects between 250 KV and 2 MW on their own or on leased land. It will generate an income of Rs 15 lakh per annum to each person. Two panchayats will be developed as green panchayats on pilot basis. The state will take a lead in green hydrogen-based economy. Soon, we will have our own green hydrogen policy.
Recently, the Himachal government replaced all diesel vehicles of the Transport Department with e-vehicles. What is next step?
We have a big plan to cut down vehicular emissions to protect environment. I have rolled out a plan to develop Himachal Pradesh as a model state for electric vehicles. More government departments will be asked to switch to electric vehicles. Nearly 1,500 diesel buses of Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) will be replaced with e-buses at a cost of Rs 1,000 crore.
We want private operators to buy e-buses and e-trucks. The government will give 50 per cent subsidy up to Rs 50 lakhs for this. The government will grant a subsidy of Rs 25,000 to 20,000 girl students to buy electric scooties. Six national and state highways will also be declared as green corridors for e-vehicles.
You have said that Himachal’s fiscal health is precarious. Where is the money to invest in such schemes?
This is typical bureaucratic thinking. We are going ahead in a big way to mobilise resources. We are a state with rich resources. Had steps been taken by previous governments, Himachal Pradesh could have been a fully self-reliant state with no need to go to Centre with a begging bowl. I have resolved to tap all possible ways to raise state’s income and fund new schemes of development with optimum job creations.
Kindly share examples of your approach to such a situation.
We have decided to levy cess on the river water used by hydro-power companies. This is a gold flowing through the state and has brought prosperity to neighbouring states at the cost of sacrifice made by us —Himachal— whether it’s those who lost land or were ousted. The water cess will generate Rs 4,000 crore per annum. We have passed the bill in the assembly.
For the first time after five years of the BJP rule, I decided to go for open bidding of liquor vends. This fetched us an increase of 38 per cent — approximately Rs 8,00 crore.
Further, we are going to end ‘banking system’ of power. The power generated from hydel projects will be sold in open market to get better rates. I have also asked the hydro-power companies including BBMB, SJVNL, and NHPC to give 30 per cent free power to the state instead of 12 per cent because most projects have wiped out their cost.
Your biggest promises in the elections among 10 guarantees were the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) and Rs 1,500 per month pension to women which involve huge financial liabilities. Kindly comment.
I have announced in the state assembly that ‘pratigya patra’ of the Congress is a policy document of the Government of Himachal Pradesh.
The Opposition BJP says the government has failed to fulfil the OPS promise and you made false promises to get power. Kindly comment.
The Old Pension Scheme (OPS) has been implemented. A decision to restore OPS was taken in the first Cabinet meeting to benefit 1.36 lakh employees. The Cabinet has passed a resolution to ask the Centre to return Rs 8,000 crore deposited with it in the NPS fund.
As the next step, in my Budget speech on March 17, I announced the fulfilment of second guarantee to give Rs 1,500 to 2.31 lakh women. This will entail an annual expenditure of Rs 416 crore. The scheme will be implemented in five-phases. We are determined to honour all guarantees but in a phased manner during the next five years.
How do you look at the promise to crate 1 lakh jobs?
We have created 5,000 jobs in Jal Shakti Department. Thirty-thousand other direct job avenues are being created besides another 50,000 indirect jobs.
The MLAs staged walk-out from the assembly. They sat on dharna over closure of institutions such as schools, health centres, sub-divisions, etc. The protests by BJP are growing. How do you look at it?
Six months before the elections, the BJP opened 900 institutions without justification and without making funds available. If we have to make all these institutions function, the government will need Rs 5,000 crore. The state’s debt is Rs 75,000 crore. Moreover, there is liability of Rs 11,000 crore payable to employees as arrears of revised pays and pensions. Another Rs 1,000 crore needed for DA instalments. Our GST reimbursements have been stopped by the Centre. So I have decided to de-notify all new institutions opened six months before the elections. Around 283 schools with zero-enrolments and 19 colleges have been de-notified.
You faced problems in the formation of the Cabinet. It is still incomplete. Himachal's biggest district Kangra is highly under-represented. There are three Cabinet vacancies yet to be filled-up. Kindly comment.
It's true that we have three vacant positions in the Cabinet. But there is no regional imbalance in the government. Lot of people —MLAs— have aspirations to be made ministers and they can’t be blamed for this. It is a good thing to aspire a political position. We will take a call on Cabinet expansion at appropriate time.
Tourism is key sector of employment generation and revenue. What are your big plans to promote tourism?
We have an ambitious plan on tourism. Kangra will be developed as ‘tourism capital’ of Himachal Pradesh as it has huge opportunities. The government plans an international-level golf course and a 24x7 tourist village. The airport will be expanded for landing of bigger aircraft. A Rs 3,000 crore zoo will also be set up in Kangra. All the districts will be connected via heliports for aerial connectivity. Pong dam lake will be promoted for adventure sports
How is your relationship with Pradesh Congress Committee President Pratibha Singh, who was also a contender for the post of Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh?
She is my party [organisational] boss. We don’t have any kind of quarrels. She is a very matured Congress leader and a sitting party MP. We are on one page on many issues of governance and vyavastha parivartan. Her son Vikramaditya Singh is an important minister in my Cabinet.