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Freebies seem to have gone with the wind in deluge-battered Himachal

IANS | September 03, 2023 10:35 AM

SHIMLA: The Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India has witnessed weeks of torrential rain since July, and the results were widespread destruction of life and property after floods and landslides.

Amidst the catastrophe, the state seems “helpless” to give many of the promised poll freebies, an attempt to woo support in the run up to the Assembly polls.

Officially, close to 400 people have died since the monsoon season began in late June, while damage to infrastructure and property has run into thousands of crores of rupees. The toll on livestock, one of the state’s mainstays, is equally devastating.

Chief Minister Sukhvinder Sukhu, who envisions making Himachal a green state by 2026, said the natural calamity, the deadliest in 50 years, has resulted in losses surpassing Rs 12, 000 crore. The government declared the state a 'natural calamity affected area’.

Government officials admit the scale of the catastrophe makes it difficult to cope and recover in years to come.

Survivors and affected communities have been left reeling from the loss of lives and livelihoods, while the government, which in December last returned to the helm with the promise of freebies, confronts the giant task of restoring and rebuilding destroyed assets -- both economic and social.

Officials admitted to IANS that rebuilding the state after nature’s fury is pushing the hill state, which has been banking heavily on borrowings through market loans with the debt crossing over Rs 75, 000 crore, to the wall with not enough money to rebuild infrastructure and sustain welfare schemes.

In the run-up to the polls, the ruling party promised, among others, free electricity up to 300 units monthly to all households, financial assistance of Rs 1, 500 monthly to women between 18 to 60 years of age and restoration of the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) for government employees.

Despite facing a mountain of debt, the less than nine month old Congress government has fulfilled the promise of implementing the OPS, a crucial vote bank, to benefit 1.36 lakh government employees.

A month after tasting victory by a narrow margin in the Assembly elections in December 2022, the cabinet, at its first meeting, fulfilled the key poll promise with a decision to provide the OPS to all employees, covered under the defined contributory pension scheme or the National Pension System (NPS), on the pattern of party-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The OPS is applicable for the future employees too.

The government is spending an additional Rs 1, 000 crore in this fiscal on the implementation of the OPS, a retirement scheme which provides a monthly pension to the beneficiaries based on their last drawn basic salary and the years of service.

The cabinet, at its meeting on March 3, decided to implement the OPS from April 1 and passed a resolution asking the Central government to return Rs 8, 000 crore under the ambit of the state's NPS.

However, the Central government has already announced that there is no provision in the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA) Act for a refund of the accumulated NPS corpus being sought by the non-BJP states that want to restart the OPS.

Gunning for the government for not implementing another major poll promise to give Rs 1, 500 per month to all women aged 18-60 years, the BJP has been saying the government is betraying the women.

“In the post-calamity, most of the poll promises seem to remain unfulfilled at least till the parliamentary polls (likely in May next year), ” a senior minister admitted to IANS.

Leader of Opposition and former chief minister Jai Ram Thakur took a jibe by saying the guarantee of Rs 1, 500 to the women should be fulfilled at least on Raksha Bandhan, which was celebrated on August 30-31.

“It has been more than nine months and the Congress has not yet fulfilled even a single guarantee. Every brother gives gifts to his sister on Raksha Bandhan. It’s an opportunity and an occasion for Chief Minister Sukhwinder Sukhu to fulfill the guarantee of giving Rs 1, 500 per month to each woman as a Raksha Bandhan gift to the mothers and sisters, ” he said.

Without mincing words, Thakur said, “The people are not going to forgive those who win the elections with a promise of guarantees and later forget to implement them.”

Admitting the state’s grim financial condition with a major portion of money going towards repayment of loans and salaries of the employees, Chief Minister Sukhu in his budget speech in March had said the government has inherited huge debt and a liability of about Rs 10, 000 crore on account of arrears of salaries of employees and pensioners and dearness allowance from the previous government.

“Policies of the previous government have resulted in a debt of Rs 92, 833 on every person of Himachal Pradesh, ” he had said.

Joining the freebies war ahead of the assembly polls, the Congress in August last year announced 300 units of free electricity to every household consumer. The promise was in the backdrop of the previous BJP government that was providing 125 units of electricity to household consumers for free. The promise of 300 units is still unfulfilled, but the government continues with the free 125 units.

Tourism, horticulture and hydropower generation are major contributors to Himachal Pradesh’s economic development.

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