HT Interview: Focus on rehab, restoring infra in disaster-hit Himachal, says CM - Hindustan Times

HT Interview: Focus on rehab, restoring infra in disaster-hit Himachal, says CM Sukhu

By, Chandigarh
Sep 19, 2023 01:24 AM IST

CM Sukhu is pulling out all the stops to convince the Centre to declare the state’s losses as national disaster and also give a special relief package.

Faced with his first major test in the rain-battered Himachal Pradesh since taking over as chief minister in December last, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, 59, recently fronted the onerous relief and rescue operations that has come to define his hands-on style of governance. With the central disaster aid of 600 crore proving meagre for rebuilding an extensively damaged infrastructure and rehabilitating 3,000 families, he is now pulling out all the stops to convince the Centre to declare the state’s losses a national disaster and also give a special relief package. In an interview with Executive Editor in Chandigarh on Monday, Sukhu dwelt on his challenges and priorities. Edited excerpts:

Hands-on and Humane: Last week, Sukhu donated <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>51 lakh from his personal savings to state disaster relief fund, a symbolic gesture that earned him a measure of public appreciation across the state. (HT photo) PREMIUM
Hands-on and Humane: Last week, Sukhu donated 51 lakh from his personal savings to state disaster relief fund, a symbolic gesture that earned him a measure of public appreciation across the state. (HT photo)

What is your assessment of the cost and cause of recent disaster in Himachal Pradesh in the wake of excessive rains?

The material loss is over 12,000 crore which is unprecedented in Himachal. It was result of excess rains, landslides and floods. Climate change and man-made factors accentuated the disaster. Certain areas such as Lahaul & Spiti, which used to get scant or no rains, received a downpour this time. The Kangra region got floods due to overflowing Pong Dam. For the first time, we saw the hills sinking which led to crash of even concrete houses. When landslide converts into mudslide, it causes more damage. That is what happened in Shimla’s Summer Hill where 20 people were killed in a day. In all, 13,000 houses across the state were damaged. Of these, 3,000 houses were completely washed out. About 1,500 roads suffered damage to varying extent. Our drinking water and irrigation schemes in river beds suffered a loss of 2,500 crore. The Larji hydel power project got a hit of 1,000 crore. When the National High Authority of India (NHAI) constructed a road, the muck was dumped into the river which changed it course, flooding the power plant. I have not seen such scale of havoc in my life time.

What is basis of your case to the Centre to declare it a national disaster?

The first phase of disaster was between July 7 and 11 when Kullu bore the major brunt. Then, I had demanded a special relief package. I camped there for three days. Nearly 75,000 stranded tourists and 15,000 vehicles were evacuated. The most challenging was the rescue of 300 tourists at Chandertal Lake where helicopters could not land. Two of my ministers rode JCB machines to clear the road buried in six-ft snow. The worst happened on August 14 when heavy spell of rains led to 51 deaths in a single day- 30 of them in Shimla. Landslides blocked all major roads. Our challenge was to get the produce from the apple belt in upper Himachal to the mandis. A tour of the state made me realise the extent of destruction. Over 3,000 affected families had to be moved to relief camps as their houses are totally wrecked. They are still there. It is then that I demanded that it be declared a national disaster on the lines of the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy. We have also demanded a special relief package. I spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on these two demands. The Government of India’s disaster relief manual provides only 1.25 lakh for damage to one-km road. How can you repair the road in such small amount in a hill state? Hence, we want the relief manual be changed.

Does Himachal meet the laid down parameters to be declared a national disaster?

Of course, we do. Already we have submitted damage assessment reports of 10,000 crore as per their parameters. The central teams have visited the state twice. We hope PM will sympathetically consider Himachal’s case.

Why has the Centre not done that so far?

They may be calculating as per the norms. I hope they will do it soon. We have already declared it a state disaster and are moving the displaced families from relief camps to rented accommodations for six months. Those in rural areas will get a monthly rent of 5,000 and ones in urban zone up to 10,000. Till their rehabilitation, they will get free ration and cooking gas.

How much funds the state has got so far from the state and national disaster relief kitty?

Disaster management is provisioned in the Union Budget. A part of taxes goes to this fund. All the states get their installments twice a year – in July and December. We got 360 crore for both installments as the Centre advanced the second. We also got 189 crore of the disaster relief share which was stuck for two years due to audit objections. So, what we got so far is our due share, disaster or no disaster. We have not got any special grant from the Centre so far.

But the opposition BJP says that your government should first spend the disaster relief funds to justify the demand for more funds from the Centre?

We have already spent what we got and informed the Centre. They (BJP leaders) don’t know that. JP Nadda ji (BJP national president) had assured me of releasing 200 crore under NDRF. I will have to see where we get that from. I have granted 150 crore to PWD to repair roads in apple belt and 140 crore to repair water and irrigation projects. Having spent all the disaster relief money, we are now spending from our resources.

If the Centre doesn’t declare it a national disaster, how will you manage?

Then, we will have to do it from our own resources. We will have to enhance the sources of our income and stand on our own feet. We may bring our own special package in coming days for those whose houses got damaged.

How long will it take to rebuild the infrastructure and rehabilitate the affected families?

All national and state highways are open now. Only 70 odd-rural roads are still blocked. The water supply projects have been restored. But it will take at least one year to rebuild the infrastructure. Tourism and excise revenue have suffered a major setback. That has led to a dip in our GST share. The disaster has severely impacted the state’s economy. But we are focused on boosting tourism infra, giving new push to industrial investments and fast-tracking work-in-progress hydel projects.

What will you do about the state’s precarious financial health?

We are passing through a phase of financial hardship. There is no denying that our fiscal position is not up to the mark. We inherited a debt burden of 75,000 crore from the previous BJP government. Add to that another 10,000 liability annually that the Centre has passed on to the state by implementing the 7th pay commission. Now we have to take loan to repay the outstanding loan. We have been borrowing quite a bit for last eight months. But how long can we continue like this? We have identified areas of resource generation. We are speeding up the ongoing hydro-electric projects. That will cut the cost and generate resources early. It will take us at least four years to bring economy back on track.

What are the key lessons the government has learnt from the disaster?

I accept that this was also a manmade tragedy. For lessons, we have looked at the causes. People built multi-storey buildings without caring for structural engineering and soil strata. Such haphazard construction was a recipe for disaster. In fact, the planned part of Shimla didn’t suffer any damage. Construction in the nullahs and river beds blocked the gushing waters. A rampant hill cutting at 90 degrees for road widening destabilised the mountain strata, making them highly prone to landslides. We are now changing the construction rules. No building activity on a 45-degree slope will be allowed. Hill-cutting for private development has been banned. Rules on structural design and load bearing capacity of strata are being reframed and will be strictly enforced. Instead of hill blasting for roads, we need to shift to tunneling. That is an expensive proposition but will be more beneficial in long term as it shortens distances, costs less maintenance and saves environment. That is what I have suggested to NHAI. There was logic behind the British building 103 tunnels on the Kalka-Shimla rail route.

Given the resource-crunch, how will your government fulfil its promises such as free power of 300 units for all households, 1,500 allowance for all women and five lakh jobs to the youth?

The main promise of old pension has already been implemented. We are doing it from our own resources. We have enhanced the monthly pension of 2.37 lakh women beneficiaries from 1,100 to 1,500. On allowance to all women above 21 years, we will have do it in phases. The first phase will roll out in Lahaul & Spiti. As our economy gets better, we will do take up more phases. Free power is not a big deal for us because Himachal is a power-surplus state. Our guarantee on employment is for the jobs in both private and government sectors. We got the mandate to do this in five years.

The apple growers are worried over reduction in import duty on American apple. What do you plan to do about it?

The Centre has slashed the 35% import duty on apple to 15%. This will definitely impact our apple economy because our produce will become expensive and the American apple will sell cheaper. There is nothing that the state can do except asking the Union government to reverse the duty slash.

Your government has staked a claim on its share in Union Territory of Chandigarh. What is the latest on that?

When Chandigarh was designated as UT after the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966, Himachal was given a share of 7.16% on the UT, alongside Punjab and Haryana. We never got that. We have set up a panel under Chander Kumar to make a fresh case. I will raise the issue in the Northern Zonal Council meeting in Amritsar on September 26.

What are your immediate goal and long-term dream for Himachal?

Right now, we are fighting for the disaster-hit people. Their rehabilitation is on top of our priority list and we are doing our best. My goal is to make Himachal self-reliant in four years. The dream is to see it as the country’s most prosperous state in 10 years.

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