Himachal Pradesh: Not orphans, but children of the state

As many as 4,000 orphaned children have been identified for the Mukhyamantri Sukh Ashray Yojana, Himachal chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu announced. This is the first of its kind scheme in India

Himachal Pradesh chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu leads from the front.
Himachal Pradesh chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu leads from the front.

Mahendra Thakur

As many as 4,000 orphans, including disabled children, have been identified for the Mukhyamantri Sukh Ashray Yojana scheme. This was announced by Himachal chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, as the Congress government completed its first year in the state.

The scheme, the first of its kind in India, was launched in October to support orphans till the age of 27. These children will be the state’s responsibility, which will provide for their health and education, including vocational training. Even those living with relatives rather than in state-run or NGO homes. will receive a monthly financial assistance of Rs 4,000. The scheme also includes an annual 15-day educational tour for the children.

The Himachal government is committed to protecting vulnerable people in society, Sukhu said. The chief minister also announced a few new schemes, including a grant of Rs 1,500 to every woman above 18 years of age in the Lahaul–Spiti district, increasing women’s pension in the state from Rs 1,100 to Rs 1,500, increasing the purchase price of milk by Rs 6 per litre to benefit dairy farmers and a new scheme for procurement of cow dung for fuel. All of these take effect from January 2024.

Sukhu also noted that the state government had already actioned 3 of the 10 guarantees in the Congress’ election manifesto— restoring the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), the first phase of the Rajiv Gandhi Self-Employment Start-up Scheme to subsidise e-taxi purchases, and English-medium education for all. These were ensured, he noted, despite a fiscal crunch.

Centre plays stepmother

The state government estimates losses caused by the monsoon flooding this year—the worst in living memory—to be around Rs 12,000 crore. Yet little help has come from New Delhi, despite the chief minister petitioning both the prime minister and the home minister in person. The Centre’s stepmotherly attitude remains a recurring complaint in Himachal.

Besides loss of lives, roads and bridges have been washed away, thousands of houses have collapsed, harvested apples could not be transported and the resulting distress sales affected farmers severely. Rebuilding infrastructure, restoring roads and connectivity took the better part of four months.

First-time chief minister Sukhu led from the front, personally supervising relief and rehabilitation. He was often seen visiting citizens in distress, which earned the new state government considerable goodwill and possibly prevented law-and-order problems from agitation of the kind neighbouring Uttarakhand saw even during the recent tunnel rescue.

The state government went ahead and announced a package of Rs 4,500 crore for the disaster-affected people too. This covers free electricity and water, LPG cylinders and cement bags at a subsidised rate of
Rs 280 to reconstruct houses. Affected families were also paid Rs 5,000 in rural areas, Rs 10,000 in urban towards renting temporary accommodations.

In the state assembly, the BJP refused to join the appeal for assistance from the Centre. Clearly the absence of a ‘double engine’ government must be felt. In private conversations, state BJP leaders express sympathy for Sukhu’s conundrum; in public, they still accuse the government of not fulfilling its promises. Sukhu’s response has been that all promises shall be fulfilled over his five-year term.

At a recent gathering in Dharamsala, deputy chief minister Mukesh Agnihotri noted the previous BJP government left the state with debt and liabilities worth
Rs 92,000 crore. Sukhu added that despite the literally disastrous monsoon,  “financial discipline and cutting down expenses have still yielded an increase of Rs 1,100 crore” in the state’s revenues”. This government’s disaster management drew international acclaim too.

Fresh faces at the helm

Sukhu, a first-time chief minister himself, inducted two new faces into the cabinet as his government completed its first year, bringing its strength to 11, one short of a full house.

Rajesh Dharmani from Bilaspur and Yadvinder Goma from Kangra, both holding B.Tech and MBA degrees, were sworn in, expanding representation as well—the cabinet now has one member each from the Scheduled Tribes and backward classes, two from the Scheduled Castes (including Goma).

Holding back the hydel juggernaut

As work on the Giri river hydroelectric project in Dadahu, Sirmaur district picks up momentum, 95 families have been declared homeless.

To complete the first phase of the Renuka Ji Dam, three families from Katli Bharana panchayat, eight families from the Ded Bagar panchayat, 17 from Parara, 11 from Lana Bhalta, 10 from Ser Tandula, 32 from Sangra, 2 from Baunal Kakoga, 10 from Gawaha and 2 families from Razana must be relocated.

The state has announced  compensation and other help to rehabilitate these families. The project, designed to generate 40 MW of electricity, involves the construction of a 148-m rock dam and a powerhouse on the river, at an estimated cost Rs 6,947 crore.

Testing times ahead

It has certainly been a tough year for the Congress government in Himachal, and the road ahead continues uphill. Educated youth are clamouring for government jobs within the state, as farming and tourism provide only seasonal employment.

While the number of tourists is many times higher than the state’s own population, tourism contributes only 8 per cent of the state’s GDP. The Tourism Development Corporation’s profit last year was a paltry Rs 5.82 crore.

Yet, to enable tourism, the state pays an enormous environmental price. Water for residents is rationed to accommodate tourists. Indiscriminate construction of hotels has eroded greenery. Meanwhile, most tourists restrict themselves to Kullu, Shimla and Kangra.

The Sukhu government is developing newer areas to spread the load, but it will take time. In the short term, the government must create more innovative schemes to generate employment and earn revenue without taxing the environment.

Another nail in the cross

The Centre has also shot down the Himachal government’s bid to generate Rs 1,800 crore from a water cess on hydel companies, terming any additional duty on power generation ‘unconstitutional’.

The state government is now looking to increase VAT on diesel, which will add to transportation costs and inflation. Whereas a hike in the power tariff would have pinched the rich and relatively well-off far more, this hurts the lower economic classes most.

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