Punjab governments brainstorming in an exotic locale comes at a time when the state is confronting a financial emergency
There is something inherently unconscionable about 150 members of the Punjab government and their entourage congregating in Goa to contemplate Punjabs way forward.
The choice of venue,which some opponents of the government have criticised,is not relevant. It is the timing and rationale of this meet that is highly deplorable in the given circumstances. Even more execrable is the conduct of the governments top representatives. There has been a 10-day delay in the payment of salaries of the governments three-lakh-strong work force. This is the second time this year that the government has erred on the payment of salaries. Previously,the government warded off the crisis by mortgaging some of its properties. Now,going by our financial protocols,this situation is the sort of exigency mentioned in Article 360 of the Indian Constitution,which calls for the imposition of financial emergency. Under such circumstances,the act of the 150 members collectively visiting the casino in Goa on the pretext of studying the possibilities of replicating the casino business in Punjab, is grossly insensitive. Even if Punjab were going through a prosperous and happy phase (far from it),the rationale would have been ludicrously disingenuous. Right now,it sounds brutally inhuman.
The chief minister and deputy chief minister (the idea is the brainchild of the latter) have sought to justify it by saying that public money is not being spent on this conclave,and the money is coming from party funds. While a metaphorical invocation of Marie Antoinette and her cake-eating advisories may appear exaggerated,it does sound like the alibi of a controversial tycoon who thought that his inability to pay salaries to his employees and his organising glitzy private parties were two different things.
What this businessman in question and the government of Punjab appear to have forgotten is that modern corporations and governments are based on the principle of representation. The people who have gathered in Goa are direct representatives of their people and their province. They cannot escape the responsibility of the fact that barely a month ago,the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India castigated the state government for misusing and misdirecting Central funds meant for the welfare of the people. A few years ago,when the Punjab government had purchased a fleet of Toyota sedans for its ministers and billed it to the exchequer,a senior minister had justified this by saying that this was in line with corporate practices,where good performance is rewarded with promotions and such perks. Even if the stupidity of the analogy is discounted,the Punjab governments performance doesnt earn them the right to this five-star sojourn. The state finance minister presented a budget last month that had a monstrous revenue deficit of Rs 4,700 crore,when in the previous budget,he had promised to rein it in to around Rs 3,000 crore. A corporate manager off his target by 55 per cent may get laid off instead of receiving an expensive holiday.
The problems of Punjab are so obvious that they do not require more chintan shivirs. For too long,the issues of bad finances,rampant drug abuse,stagnating industry,crippling diseases endemic to certain areas in the state,perishing agriculture,increasing pollution,rising intolerance and fundamentalism in certain quarters have been ignored. These compelling problems deserve immediate action,but more importantly,a united political approach,where all the prominent political players of the state come together and concentrate on problem-solving. We all know that a holiday in Goa was not required for that,for all it mattered this meeting could have well taken place in Goraya (a small town in Punjab).
Unlike insensitive monarchies of yore where kings played lyre while their cities burned,modern governments need to show solidarity with their people. In their hour of distress,the attitude of we are paying our own bills doesnt cut much ice. Three years ago,this newspaper had reported how two senior ministers of the UPA government were living in expensive suites in leading five-star hotels in New Delhi. The then finance minister,Pranab Mukherjee,had asked them to immediately vacate their suites. That they were paying their own bills was irrelevant,because Mukherjee rightly felt that this sent a wrong message at a time when the government was preaching austerity. Many Akali leaders had taken digs at the two ministers alleged callousness. I wonder what they have to say now.
The writer is the former finance minister of Punjab and president of the Peoples Party of Punjab