Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Shekhawat says Amarinder Singh alone can’t be faulted over Punjab govt problems, stresses the farm laws issue will be resolved before polls, and explains Jal Jeevan Mission’s thrust on managing demand. The session was moderated by Deputy Political Editor Liz Mathew.
LIZ MATHEW: You are the minister in-charge of Punjab for the BJP. Everyone in the BJP says there is not much hope for the party in the state, mainly due to the farm law protests.
Among all the four states that will see elections soon, the best-possible situation for the BJP will be in Punjab… Since the formation of the party in 1980, we have always fought polls there as the younger brother, fighting 20-23 seats and winning two to 19. For the first time, we are preparing to contest all the 117 seats. The way the votes have been polarised in Punjab, we will create history… The way we gauge the effect of the farmers’ agitation in Punjab sitting here in Delhi is contrary to reality. Some people with vested interests are shooting from the shoulders of farmers. After talking to people in Chandigarh, BJP workers from across Punjab, media and social organisations, I can say that the common man has got nothing to do with it (the farmers’ agitation).
LIZ MATHEW: Recently, Amarinder Singh, the former chief minister of Punjab, broke away from the Congress and announced he could have an alliance or understanding with the BJP. He met Home Minister Amit Shah too. But the BJP has said it will contest all the seats. Why is the BJP dragging its feet over the Amarinder Singh matter?
There is no conflict of any sort. Captain Singh did talk to the Home Minister. You cannot shut the door on any possibility in politics. (But) The BJP stands by its ideology, and its goal and path are decided. We welcome anyone who wants to synthesise and work with us.
Punjab used to be an economically prosperous state but is now lagging behind. Whatever development it had, is shifting out, its groundwater is getting exhausted, and people are trying to bring back the militancy era through these channels (the farmers’ agitation). Pakistan-sponsored activities and drug-smuggling are on the rise… We will team up with anyone who wants to establish a stable government which will work for national security.
LIZ MATHEW: How do you view Amarinder Singh’s four years as CM?
No government is an individual’s government. The way corruption has increased in Punjab in the last four years, the kind of situation there… any citizen of the state will give you the answer.
LIZ MATHEW: So you do not hold Amarinder Singh responsible for it?
As I said, a government is not made of one individual, it’s a collective responsibility. But of course, as he was leading the government, he will face the brunt of it.
LIZ MATHEW: The BJP has been very adamant on the farm laws. Do you think in the backdrop of the party’s plans for Punjab, there could be changes in the legislation?… You also dealt with farmers’ issues before you came to the Jal Shakti Ministry.
You need to change the way you worded that question — that the BJP government is rigid about the laws. The Modi government’s door is always open to resolving issues… (even those) instigated by vested interests. To clear the misinformation, PM Modi has given statements on MSP and markets. Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and (Minister of Consumer Affairs and Food and Public Distribution) Piyush Goyal held 11 rounds of talks with the farmers. We also agreed to suspend the laws for some time. Our homes and hearts have always been open for the farmers… Barring these two states (Punjab and Haryana), there is no agitation among farmers. In fact, many farmer associations have supported the government.
LIZ MATHEW: Are you optimistic you will be able to resolve this issue without withdrawing the laws?
It should happen, and it will happen.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: If you see the civic poll results of February, the BJP was behind both the Congress and AAP. You still think the BJP can perform well in Punjab without resolving the issue?
Connecting these two things and then asking what will happen is premature. I would ask you to see the situation on the ground. This time, farmers have gained from MSP through direct benefit transfer. The sentiment is very positive due to this. Farmers are enthusiastic and grateful about how procurement has increased in the last two seasons. I wish with all my heart that this conflict is resolved so that other people are not inconvenienced by it (the protests) and the protesters can also go back home and fight the elections.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The PM had promised that by 2024, everyone in Uttar Pradesh would get water via taps. If you see the situation from August 15, 2019, when he made the announcement, and today, UP has dropped from fifth-last to the bottom of the list. Only 24% of the rural households have benefited from the Nal Se Jal scheme. Do you blame UP or the Jal Jeevan Mission?
You can’t see UP and the Jal Jeevan Mission as two separate things. UP is the most populated state, so they had the highest target too. In absolute numbers, in 2019, UP ranked the lowest. I accept that work was not done at the expected rate. But the fact is that in six-seven districts of the most critical regions of UP’s Bundelkhand region, there is now water accessibility in every house, hand pumps everywhere. UP worked on that region, which has a population of 62 lakh, on a priority basis. The work is 70% complete and water will start reaching 60-70% households by the time of the election (in 2022).
The progress was slow due to the model adopted by the UP government. Also, Covid impacted the entire country and its impact was very high in UP. Despite this, work has begun in 30,000 villages apart from the Bundelkhand region.
ESHA ROY: A national water policy has been in the works for a long time. When is this finally being released?
The Mihir Shah water policy report is right now before an evaluation committee, and hence I can’t talk about it in detail. However, we will soon put it in the public domain and ask for the opinion of all stakeholders, including states, since it is a state subject… I can tell you this much that, till now, our focus has been on the supply side of water. The new policy’s thrust is on the demand side, how to reduce it, ensure optimum, judicious use of water, recycle, reutilise it… The amount of water that we could tap into 50-60 years ago, at the time of Independence… it has remained the same. However, the population has risen three-four times, and hence per capita consumption has fallen. Anything below it would put us in ‘water-stressed’ category.
Realising this, and keeping in mind climate change… we have to focus more on demand-side management.
Second, we are working on groundwater rejuvenation. We are among the highest consumers of groundwater, drawing nearly 25% of what is taken out in a year globally. China and America are in the second and third positions, but we take out 1.5 times of what they do together. We may laud Green Revolution, but one of its major driving factors was irrigation, and irrigation consumes 70% of the water drawn out of the ground.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Are you aware of any concerns or fears within the government or the party about possible use of the Pegasus spyware to snoop on them?
There is neither fear nor concern. The Communications and IT Minister (Ashwini Vaishnaw) has already said all that was to be said on the floor of Parliament. A bubble was created, and this can’t have any impact on a party like the BJP which works like a family, or create any confusion within ministers of the Modi government. Jo kuchch nahin hai usko khada karne ki koshish ki gayi (It was all a figment of imagination)… You can create an illusion out of lies, but it can’t survive… In fact, after the Parliament session, this is the first I am hearing of the Pegasus word. No one is even talking about it, not even the Opposition.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: The Supreme Court just set up an expert committee on the Pegasus controversy.
That is a different matter. I am talking about it from the point of view of politics… It is the apex court’s domain to set up a committee, I have no right to say anything about it… Committees have been set up earlier too, on so many issues. All kinds of things were said at the time of the Rafale (aircraft deal)… Committees were set up, what happened to those? Jahan saanch hai, wahan kisi prakar ki aanch hoti nahin hai (When you are on the side of truth, there is no reason to be worried)… I am sure the Supreme Court committee on Pegasus will draw the curtain on the matter.
LIZ MATHEW: The Supreme Court also pulled up the government for using national security as a defence to hold back information on Pegasus.
Let the report come, the truth will be out.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: So many veteran leaders of the BJP feel ignored in Punjab despite having stood strong even during militancy. Several like Anil Joshi have gone to the Akali Dal.
It is natural for party leaders who are unhappy to seek out another party. But in recent days, 5,000 people have joined the BJP, from the Akali Dal, AAP and Congress. My counter-question is how do you see this. Doesn’t this show that they see an opportunity in the BJP?
LIZ MATHEW: Talking of your home state Rajasthan, during the revolt by Sachin Pilot in the Congress, there was talk of him coming over to the BJP, or breaking away. Your name was mentioned several times.
From the day of the results… the seeds of discord within the Congress have been around. It was a result of this that the whole episode happened… The Chief Minister (Ashok Gehlot) and his loyalists dragged in the name of the BJP to malign it, the PM, Home Minister… They lodged a case of sedition against me… Fifteen days later, it dawned on the government that the charge was false and it withdrew it overnight!
LIZ MATHEW: The BJP in the state is believed to be divided into factions.
We have only one leader, Narendra Modi… Politics is naturally competitive, and in a party like the BJP, this kind of competition is natural because everyone has a chance at elevation, unlike parties where only the family gets a chance. In the BJP, a tea-seller can be PM or a small-time worker can be a Cabinet minister. I am an example of that. In the Cabinet, 90% have backgrounds like these.
LIZ MATHEW: Vasundhara Raje has refused to campaign for the party and opposed you as Rajasthan chief.
There are no such differences… I can’t recall an instance when Vasundhara ji was called and she didn’t come… She was there when my mother passed away… The BJP has so many leaders in the state… what can be healthier?
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The Namami Gange has now been approved by the Expenditure Finance Committee until 2026. Will Namami Gange 2.0 be 100% Centrally funded or will you involve states as well?
There will be no change in the funding pattern… Earlier, there was talk only of the Ganga’s nirmalta (cleanliness); the PM came up with aviralta (uninterrupted flow). The infrastructure created in previous Ganga action plans was not operating properly because the cost was not planned by the state or the implementing and funding agencies. For long-term sustainability, we decided on a hybrid annuity mode, so that it is the responsibility of whoever is making Sewage Treatment Plants to run it for 15 years… We also introduced the concept of one city, one operator for all its STPs.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: In the Jal Jeevan Mission, how has the performance of BJP-ruled states been, in terms of off-take from Central funds and their own state water schemes, compared to others?
In 22 months, we successfully gave 5.2 crore new connections… Haryana and Telangana are 100% saturated, the UTs are 100% saturated, Punjab, Gujarat, Himachal, Uttarakhand and Bihar have crossed the 80% benchmark. Some states haven’t performed as expected — West Bengal and UP. Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are the least-performing states. Coincidentally, all are non-BJP states. It’s not right to talk politics on an issue like water but Rajasthan got among the highest grants…
Earlier, Opposition-ruled states could say we haven’t got enough funds. But there is not a single such voice now. We brought in transparency. On the Jal Jeevan Mission dashboard, you will find everything — state-wise position of water connections, funds allocated, spent…
Also, we decided there should be a protocol to test the purity of drinking water, that every district should have an accredited testing lab. It was the PM’s whole-of-government approach.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: During the second Covid wave, bodies were found floating down the Ganga. Has your ministry looked at that?
Let me start with the first wave. PM Modi took me aside and said, ‘Once the lockdown ends, there will be a lot of discussion… environmentalists will mention how industries shut down, traffic came to a halt, things became cleaner. You should monitor the Ganga and its tributaries, the impact on them, so that later, you will have the answers.’ And that’s exactly what happened, the media talked about clean air, water. We carried out studies at the time, including through IITs, the Institute of Toxicology… There are three big sources of pollution. Of these, the industries were shut, and people who would go to the river to bathe or wash clothes were not going. The third is sewage, and there was no significant change in its level during the lockdown. We found that there was no significant change of any kind… There were some small changes, at pinpointed places, where directly industrial waste would get infused into the water.
When Covid came the second time, the Opposition and media made a big deal of it… As per our traditions, cremations happen in the presence of the sun or the Ganga. Where the Ganga flows, cremations hence can happen at all times. People also put bodies into the water so that the fish can feed on them… these are beliefs lasting centuries. In 2015, when we did a river rafting expedition on the Ganga, we found hundreds of such bodies. When we did the same in 2019, the number was not even one-tenth, just 1-2%. I don’t want to comment on exactly what happened during the second wave, did bodies come floating down from somewhere else… But because of this, to say there was an impact on the quality of water — in such volume of water, some bodies — that our mission to clean the Ganga failed, that shows we don’t trust our own capabilities.
ANISHA DUTTA: In 2019, when the Urban Development Ministry was brought under Jal Shakti Abhiyan, 255 districts were labelled extremely water-stressed. What is the status now?
We identified 256 districts… It is not that all were water-stressed. Districts were identified in every state, to give it a pan-India approach… These were districts where water tables had fallen, these may not actually be ‘stressed’… We carried out rejuvenation of water bodies, did water mapping… We got very good results… This year, we expanded the programme to 700 districts… We have spent Rs 50,000 crore from varied sources.