NH Exclusive: Himachal ‘ready’ to welcome tourists again, says chief minister Sukhu
A candid conversation with the chief minister on Himachal’s turnaround story after the worst natural calamity ever faced by the state
A dark horse in December 2022, he was the surprise choice for chief minister for a majority of Congress legislators and central leaders. A grassroots politician and four-time MLA who started his career with NSUI, the party’s students’ wing, and then worked his way through the Youth Congress, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu is not known to mince his words. His was a baptism by fire when the state was devastated by cloudbursts, flooding and landslides earlier this year. Emerging stronger from it, he has won over many of his former critics through his humility, teamwork and willingness to connect with people. A candid conversation with the chief minister on Himachal’s turnaround story.
In July–August this year, the state endured one of the worst natural disasters in history. You were in office for barely six months when heavy rainfall and floods washed away many of the roads, highways, houses and power plants. In October, however, the state appears to have miraculously recovered. How did you do it?
This is no miracle. What you see is the hard work of the people of the state, the officials, employees, MLAs and ministers. We worked as a team, reached everywhere, took stock and did what needed to be done.
It will take us time to rebuild the infrastructure that has been destroyed; but all roads are now open and the state is absolutely safe. I invite people and tourists to come and see the change for themselves.
Reports tell us that you led from the front and your government set an example, but what kind of assistance have you received from the Union government?
Nothing really until now. What New Delhi has released is merely an advance amount from the annual budgetary grant determined before the disasters struck. We had demanded a special central relief package of Rs 12,000 crore.
We had sent the resolution adopted by the Assembly, though unsupported by the BJP, to the government. We are not clear yet if it is coming. However, the state government has arranged for Rs 4,500 crore for relief, restoration and rehabilitation from its own resources.
Has an assessment of the damages been made and are steps being taken to prevent such disasters in future or at least minimise their impact?
Heavier than normal rainfall, cloudbursts and landslides affected water and power supply and damaged the irrigation system. After stock-taking, we decided to take temporary measures to restore systems. We did not wait for central grants to come through or aim for permanent restoration.
That is why you find there is no panic in the state, no chaos. An important reason was that people stood by the government and helped us restore systems. I am deeply thankful to them.
What is sad, however, is the behaviour of BJP leaders. They would not even utter the phrase ‘national calamity’ in the House, leave alone ‘special relief package’. BJP’s Members of Parliament from the state failed to even submit an appeal to the Union home minister urging him to help the state.
I did not expect MPs to pay anything from their savings but I did expect that BJP legislators would send a delegation to New Delhi to demand urgent aid and relief assistance. This was not the time for politics but...
What prompted you to donate Rs 51 lakh from your personal savings to the special relief fund?
I was moved by children going around collecting donations, with their gullaks (piggy banks) in their hands. I had donated Rs 19 lakh from my personal savings during the Covid pandemic as well. There was a BJP government in the state at the time. So, this was not a publicity gimmick.
I did not think much about it because as chief minister I get my salary every month and although I was left with just Rs 17,000 after donating Rs 51 lakh, I was not worried. Thousands of citizens actually donated and that is how we could mobilise Rs 200 crore from the people alone. It was historic.
We noticed reports about changes being made in the relief manual. Could you explain what they are?
There are two relief manuals, one of the central government and the other of the state. The state government manual provided for a compensation of Rs 1,00,000 (one lakh) if an entire house was destroyed and a maximum of Rs 6,500 for partial damage.
Himachal is the first state, and certainly the first hill state, to enhance the compensation from Rs 1,00,000 to Rs 7,00,000. We will pay one lakh for partially damaged houses. We resolved to provide free water and electricity to the victims.
We reduced the tax on cement to just Rs 280 per bag. As many as 16,000 families will benefit, of whom 3,500 saw their houses being completely destroyed.
Additionally, for milch animals killed in the disaster, the state government has made provision for Rs 55,000 in the case of cows and buffaloes and Rs 6,500 for goats.
Apple growers in the state also faced unexpected and unprecedented difficulties in the wake of the disasters. Did your relief package offer them something?
We dramatically increased the support price for apples, the highest increase in the last seven decades. But a lot more needs to be done. We are engaged in putting the economy and our finances back on the rails.
Every day we are tinkering with new ideas and I am confident that the state’s economy will improve and become sufficiently robust in four years. We will work hand-in-hand with the apple growers to make Himachal one of the most prosperous states in the next 10 years.
While driving up to Shimla, we saw many places where the hillsides have been sliced at right angles. Many experts have warned that cutting mountainsides vertically is inviting trouble...
In the hills, landslides do take place when roads are laid. It is true that experts advise hillsides be cut in slopes. Even then, they say, it normally takes four to five years for the hills to settle. Your observation is correct.
The NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) has been guilty of cutting hillsides vertically at 90 degrees. We have had discussions with NHAI and they have agreed to mend their ways.
The disasters this year have given rise to renewed apprehensions about the load-bearing capacity of hill stations. People have been speaking of ‘over-tourism’, that Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala are unable to bear the pressure of tourism. Are there plans to control the flow of tourists?
Natural disasters have nothing to do with inflow of tourists. Yes, sometimes the rush of tourists does become unmanageable and creates problems of parking and vehicular movement. We are holding talks with experts and consultants to find ways of sorting out these problems.
We have enough home-stays and hotels for tourists. Presently we receive around 15 million tourists every year. I hope we will soon be able to receive 50 million tourists. ‘Over-tourism’ is not an appropriate term.
Is your government serious about developing and settling new hill stations?
Himachal Pradesh has not had one new hill station in the last 75 years. We have been advised to develop new tourists spots and new hill stations. Availability of water and of course land will be the key factors. We have tentatively identified two spots, one at Palampur and another at Jakhya Devi, both in Kangra.
Is it really advisable to build new infrastructure in a state with 65 per cent forest cover? Is it ecologically wise?
I do not say this will be a cakewalk. But new hill stations are needed and studies are being undertaken to proceed with due diligence and care for such concerns.
You were quoted as saying, in another interview, that your dream was to turn Himachal into the tourism capital of India. Without air connectivity and infrastructure, is that feasible?
As you yourself pointed out, Himachal Pradesh has 65 per cent forest cover. The state functions as the lungs for the plains of north India. The state, however, gets nothing in return. This was the context in which I had made the statement that the state needs to be compensated. As for turning the state into a ‘tourist capital’, it will be a long haul and there will undoubtedly be many obstacles.
In December, you will be completing one year in office. Besides relief work, what are your other achievements in this short time?
I like to believe that we have won the trust of the people. People take us and our word seriously. They believe that if we say something, we will deliver. That has been the biggest gain. You may also ask around and people will tell you, I am sure, that things are changing in government offices.