ASHWANI SHARMA: Himachal Pradesh has had veterans such as Prem Kumar Dhumal and Virbhadra Singh as chief ministers. As a first-time CM, what are some of the policy and development initiatives that you want to introduce in the state?
There has been a generational change in Himachal Pradesh and people have lots of expectations. Whatever happened in the past need not continue in the same way. We won’t work with badle ki bhavna (vendetta). Earlier, governments would target one another from day one.
Secondly, in the past five years, with the former chief minister (THE Congress’s Virbhadra Singh) occupied with all those cases against him, there were several ‘retired and tired’ employees and officers all around in the government and bureaucracy. Extensions were given to thousands of employees who were loyal to (the then political establishment) without any reason or justification. The first decision we took was that all such ‘retired and tired’ officers should go. Himachal is known as dev bhumi (land of Gods). In our very first meeting with officers, we made it clear that there was no place for corruption in this government. As far as new initiatives are concerned, I think we have to focus on two-three sectors. The Gudiya rape case had put a question mark on the law and order situation in the state. (A 16-year-old girl was raped and murdered in the Kotkhai area of Shimla district on July 4, triggering major protests. Six persons were arrested, of which one died in police custody.) Earlier, such a case could never be imagined in Himachal Pradesh. It’s a challenge to restore confidence in the police and government, and we have taken some initiatives in this regard. We launched the Gudiya helpline (for women) on January 26 — we will ensure that an ‘action taken’ report is filed within 48 hours of receiving a complaint on the number 1515.
Another incident which shook the state was the murder of forest guard Hoshiyar Singh. He was from my constituency. His body was found tied to a tree in a forest (in June 2017). We have launched another helpline, Hoshiyar, (1090) for complaints related to illicit felling of trees… It could be mining mafia, land mafia, forest or drug mafia — all information can be given on this helpline and prompt action will be taken. Then there is the Shakti Button app. If the user is in distress and presses the button, it will transmit the phone’s location automatically to the police headquarters. Also, if the user is unable to press the button, she can throw her mobile phone forcefully on the ground and an automatic alert will be sent to the police headquarters and help will arrive. We also want to focus on tourism since there is a lot of scope for that in Himachal Pradesh. In that regard, improving road connectivity is a major area of concern.
ASHWANI SHARMA: What about infrastructure projects?
When I met the Prime Minister, finance minister, and (minister for road transport and highways) Nitin Gadkariji in Delhi, I sought their help. It has been a year since Himachal was promised 69 new national highways. The previous government did not even initiate the process of making DPRs (Detailed Project Reports for road/highways). Reason: they thought that if this begins, the BJP would get an advantage in the Assembly elections. Now, because the PWD is with me, we have set a deadline of March 31 for the preparation of DPRs. The funding is coming from the Centre. We have said that the tender process should be completed by March 31. Earlier, the process of tendering for seven DPRs was completed in one and a half years, but I am happy that we have already completed the tendering process of 35 DPRs in a short span of time. There will be roads and national highways for connectivity and there will be facilities for tourists who come to Himachal Pradesh. But it will take time, a minimum of two-four years. Along with it, we are focusing on railways. China is across the Himachal border… Railways will increase the scope for tourism and is also necessary from the defence point of view.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Employment is a big issue across the country. Do you have any specific plans for Himachal Pradesh?
We will certainly do our best. We have to accept the fact that it is not possible to create government jobs on a large scale. There are 10 lakh unemployed persons in Himachal Pradesh. Ultimately, we will have to generate our own resources. Horticulture is one option and we will work to promote it in the near future.
PARUL: The handloom and woollen clothes industry is very popular in Himachal. Is there any scheme to promote small-scale industries for employment generation?
As far as self-employment is concerned, small-scale industries manufacturing traditional articles make for a very big base, particularly in areas such as Kullu, Shimla and the tribal regions. We had a meeting with (Union textile minister) Smriti Irani to organise a big function for weavers. People have been doing it on their own so far. There are many Union government schemes for subsidy, promotion and marketing of such products. We are making efforts to create employment by promoting the Kullu shawl, Kullu topi, muffler and Chamba handkerchiefs etc, among domestic tourists and foreigners.
KANCHAN VASDEV: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised action against the mining and drug mafia in the state. Apart from the helpline, what are the other measures that are being taken?
Yes, we are working on it. The mining mafia had become active on a large scale, particularly in the border areas near Pathankot and Una. They had huge protection. Within one month, we have closed 16 unauthorised crushers that were operating in Himachal for many years.
The drug mafia is also a matter of concern in areas bordering Punjab. We have certain plans to tackle it, but it is not appropriate to disclose them at this stage. We are also taking up the matter with the Punjab government.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: Successive governments have failed to solve the drug problem in Malana in Kullu district. People living in these parts are dependent on cannabis production to earn their living. Do you have any rehabilitation plans for them?
(Cannabis cultivation) has become a source of income for them because it is an easy way to make money. We are thinking of helping them economically. Till date, no significant work has been done in this field. We have to offer some alternative source of income to these people.
OINDRILA MUKHERJEE: Several people are in favour of legalising cannabis cultivation for medicinal purposes. Will your government consider it?
It will not be possible to legalise cannabis. The issue has been discussed in the Vidhan Sabha as well, not once but many times. There were suggestions to legalise cannabis in a controlled manner, coupled with monitoring. Though cannabis can be legalised, how will it be monitored? It may lead to chaos. It is very difficult. At the moment we are not in favour of legalising it.
ADIL AKHZER: The Himachal Pradesh government has decided to withdraw all “politically motivated cases” filed by the previous Congress government, out of which five are related to the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA), previously headed by three-time BJP MP Anurag Thakur. Why?
The previous government lodged several cases against our elected representatives and organisational leaders for small matters such as blocking of roads and burning of effigies. These cases defy logic. We said that all cases lodged as part of vendetta politics shall be withdrawn.
The case you are referring to is also under consideration. We will withdraw cases only after taking legal opinion and completing all the technical formalities. We have initiated the procedure. We are making a list of all those cases that can be withdrawn. Ultimately, we will have to look into the merits of the cases.
SUKHBIR SIWACH: The issue of phone tapping is often raised in Himachal Pradesh.
The previous government had initiated investigations against its predecessor. (In 2013, the Congress government in the state had ordered a probe into allegations that phones of several politicians, bureaucrats, journalists were intercepted during the previous BJP regime led by Prem Kumar Dhumal.) Computers were confiscated, hard discs were sent to forensic labs… A figure came up that about 1,300 phone tappings took place. But it has not been established whether phone taping did take place. The then director general of police has been acquitted of allegations (of illegal phone tapping).
MAN AMAN SINGH CHHINA: Several private educational institutions have come up in Himachal Pradesh. These don’t have many students or a record of placements. Does your government plan to act against them?
Some of these institutions are good and are performing well. Personally, I don’t find it reasonable to have so many private educational institutions. We won’t promote this. There is a regulatory authority for private universities.
SOFI AHSAN: As you plan to construct several highways to improve road connectivity across Himachal, how will you address environment concerns?
A balance between development and environment is very important. We are trying to ensure minimum damage to the environment. When we make DPRs, we keep this in mind. Circumstances are such that we have to construct roads, but we are also planning large-scale tree plantations to compensate for it.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: There were some shock defeats in the Assembly elections last year, like that of Prem Kumar Dhumal. There is talk that there was a plan within the BJP to have him defeated, and so his constituency was changed.
There was no such plan, it just happened. The election results (Dhumal’s loss) were a surprise for us too. To go into reasons is not justified, people’s mandate has to be accepted in a democracy. There were also questions over my appointment as chief minister. But I want to say here that the party high command had made it almost clear that I would be deputy CM when Dhumalji’s name was declared as the chief ministerial candidate. The party president (Amit Shah) said in my constituency that after Dhumalji, I would be next. He had said that since Jairam Thakur has been a four- time MLA, party president and minister, this time he will be above all these positions. I speak less and do not remain much in news, and that is why people ask, ‘Where did he come from?’. I remain focused on my work and do my job diligently. I was block president, district president, youth-wing state president, state vice-president and then state party president. I have contributed to the party at every level. I have never been interested in making headlines. In the Vidhan Sabha also, I have spoken on relevant matters and never raised any hue and cry while putting my viewpoint across.
I come from a background where politics was never discussed. I come from a very poor family. When I was studying in primary school, I would go to school barefoot. I have lived through poverty and not just seen it from the outside. I understand the problems of the poor.
ASHWANI SHARMA: How are your relations with Prem Kumar Dhumal, Shanta Kumar and JP Nadda?
I have good relations with all three of them. Dhumalji and Shanta Kumarji are very senior to me. Naddaji is more or less a colleague; he is a little senior to me. We have worked together in the party and government. I have no problem working with anyone. As party president, I worked with them and there were good results. Today, when I have been entrusted with a responsibility, everyone is cooperating.
VARINDER BHATIA: Is the BJP going to give Prem Kumar Dhumal some other responsibility?
Dhumalji is a very senior leader and is accorded respect in the party and government. It is the prerogative of the party’s national leadership to decide about him.
KANCHAN VASDEV: There is talk about how the RSS is involved in the appointment of officers in the state.
Such talk is floated to create a certain perception. The RSS gives suggestions, but it does not force them on us. Our political party, our team takes the decisions. But, we respect the RSS, it is the source of our ideology. Sometimes, we accept their requests but they do not interfere.
(On appointment of officers) Himachal Pradesh is a small state and we have a limited pool of officers. The same officers who served in the last government are serving in my government as well, and will continue to serve in the future governments. We have to carry on business with them. The perception that is being created about (appointments) has no relevance. This is an elected government and we are the ones taking the decisions.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Many states are going to polls this year. There is a perception that the BJP may not do as well as it did five years ago. As the CM of a state where the BJP has just won, how do you see the coming Assembly elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
So far, we have formed governments in states where there was no BJP government earlier. We know that we have to take 2019 elections very seriously. The kind of leadership we have… what is happening in poll-bound states such as Karnataka and Rajasthan becomes irrelevant. The nation wants to run in Modiji’s name for a long time. And this is what resonates in whichever state you go.