New Year promises and the reality gap

Chandigarh, Jan 15: The Punjab Government has spent a good part of the first fortnight of the month in making New Year resolutions and letting people know of it. The feel-good exercise started with Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh writing in The Tribune’s columns to list out the government’s “achievements” thus far, and promising even better times ahead. He noted the list was “not comprehensive”.

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Over the subsequent two weeks, the few ministers that he has in his Cabinet held grand press conferences, along with the bureaucrats concerned, spelling out development plans for the future — it was hard to say whether near future, or the long term. It was a veritable laying out of the manifesto, a second time; hopefully with a better understanding of feasibilities this time. Nonetheless, the effort must be appreciated, if for nothing else then for the sheer effort of officials and ministers joining their heads and bringing out something on paper. That has to be the starting point for any plan.

The plans announced, however, may leave many a resident of the state in disbelief for the sheer contrast between the state’s finances — as suggested by the Chief Minister himself — and the brilliance of the proposals. The star of the Cabinet, Navjot Singh Sidhu, promised Rs 500 crore worth of investments to gird up the state’s fire safety set-up. Financial Commissioner Vini Mahajan explained plans to revolutionise the way revenue records are created, maintained and accessed, otherwise a source of endless anguish to property owners. The reticent Education Minister, Aruna Chaudhary, too faced the media, accompanied by the maverick School Education Secretary Krishan Kumar. They promised an overhaul of the examination and marking system. The seniormost minister, Brahm Mohindra, spelled out the proposals for his ministry, Health — 2,950 ‘wellness’ centres, new trauma centres, medical colleges, universal health insurance, ambulances.

The police were represented by state DGP Suresh Arora (Home being with the Chief Minister himself). He felt confident enumerating the successes of 2017, especially the cracking of ‘targeted killings’. For the future, he promised increased police strength, with greater share of women in the force, and a smart new emergency response system.

All of this was more than heartening to hear. But the question that remained was, does one take heart from this? The state of finances is well known (struggling to serve even midday meals), and the governance ability — or the lack of it — is getting exposed every day. Death certificates were issued to the families of five persons killed in a cracker godown blast in Sangrur after a struggle of three months — bearing a wrong date of death. Compensation too had been paid after the matter was repeatedly highlighted in this paper.

A classic demonstration of both messed-up finances and administrative ineptness has been the mother of all populist programmes — the farm loan waiver. Such has been the chaos over inappropriate people getting relief, and most indebted farmers anxious over their prospects, that two senior party leaders may now be meeting MLAs and officers to revise the scheme implementation.

The gap between reality and ambition seems to continue to elude the Congress government, despite it now having been in power for nine months, and well aware how vacant the coffers are.

New Year’s promise of a bright future, however, was not about welfare alone. The anti-corruption drive too seemed to have caught on. Facing action were PTU former vice-chancellor Rajneesh Arora; Mohali Mayor Kulwant Singh; officials in a Ghaggar dam scam; retired SSP Surjit Singh Grewal; contractor Gurinder Singh, et al. However, what some may find striking is the coincidence of all having committed their alleged wrongs during the Akali regime or being close to the SAD-BJP alliance. Those involved in serious wrongdoings during the past nine months — whether a Patiala MLA and cops’ role in illegal mining, or a minister who seems to be living by a parallel set of laws — seemed no closer to being brought to book.

It would be good if the Captain would be kind enough to let people know till when the New Year resolutions last, so they may get back to the humdrum of the daily grind they have known for ages.

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