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Monday, January 18, 2021

Hemant Soren: Senior leaders say Pak, China involved… If we look at farmers with suspicion, it will hurt the community

After BJP’s victory in general elections last year, Soren’s JMM-led alliance gave the Opposition its first win in a state poll, underlining the impact of local issues. Son of three-time CM Shibu Soren, his govt is set to complete a year in office.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: December 21, 2020 1:57:35 pm
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The Jharkhand CM says Oppn must examine “politics in small pockets” to take on BJP, denies special treatment to Lalu Prasad, says GST “has broken the back of state governments” and talks of rebuilding trust with industry players to generate jobs in state. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj C G

MANOJ C G: What has the last one year as chief minister of Jharkhand been like? What were some of the challenges that you faced?

We came to power with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but the past year has been tough for everyone. The entire world is still battling the pandemic. The year has given me a new experience as a leader. We learnt how to deal with a wide-spread infectious disease. This experience will be a milestone for us, and even for leaders in the future. It will serve as a reference point to see how a government faces a challenge and overcomes them.

Our state has a different nature and culture. The arrangements here are different. This is true for every state, and the present crisis has tested the ability of each of these governments to stand by its people. For (Jharkhand’s) over three crore population, we have created a feeling of strength in these tough times.

MANOJ C G: Many of the Opposition parties have raised questions about the Centre’s measures during the pandemic. What has your experience of interacting with the Centre been during these months?

Unfortunately, I have to say that non-BJP states have not had a good experience. It is the same situation for us too. Our state is among the backward states in the country, and it needs the most care and attention. But instead of getting that, our state was ignored the most. Whether it is healthcare or economic support, Jharkhand has been dependent on the Centre. We were hoping for special attention and support from the Centre, but didn’t get any of it.

MANOJ C G: There is a lot of conversation now over the issue of availability of Covid-19 vaccine for the common man. Have you got any assurance from the Prime Minister or the Centre that all residents of your state will get the vaccine?

Yes, the conversation about the vaccine has been going on for some time. There are a lot of questions regarding the availability of the vaccine, even though the vaccine is not here yet. During the Bihar elections the BJP said that the state would be the first to be given free vaccine. In such a situation, what kind of priority will states such as Jharkhand get?… In the supply of the vaccine, the Central government will play an important role, and we will find out how it prioritises states once the supply chain is set in- to motion.

MANOJ C G: You mentioned that state governments did not get enough support from the Centre during the pandemic. What are some of the measures that the Centre could have taken in this period?

Jharkhand was among the first states that had asked the Centre to allow migrant workers to return (when the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in March-April). It wasn’t allowed. On the other hand, BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh took measures that were against the Centre’s guidelines to get its people home. Then, even we said that if you don’t allow us, then we will have to defy the Centre’s guidelines.

Jharkhand job scheme, Hemant Soren, Jean Dreze, Jharkhand government, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren. (File Photo)

The difficult condition that migrant workers found themselves in during the lockdown was visible to everyone. People were reaching out to us from all over the country, and it was becoming a matter of concern for us. Somehow, things moved forward. First, the number of trains travelling to the state was not enough. We had to get people airlifted from the Andaman & Nicobar islands, from Ladakh, Assam… Somehow, we got our people back.

As far as healthcare is concerned… The Centre had received a lot of donations from big corporate houses as part of the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, and they had assured all the states that ventilators will be provided. The number of ventilators that finally arrived were negligible.

In the early days of the pandemic, we did not even have Covid-19 testing facilities in the state. Samples had to be taken to our neighbouring states and the results took 15-20 days to arrive. We repeatedly sought permission from the Centre to make our own laboratories operational, but there too we got little help. Finally, we set up four world-class testing laboratories in the state on our own. Today, we have RT-PCR testing facilities in all our districts.

ABHISHEK ANGAD: What are you doing to ensure employment for the migrant workers who have returned to the state in the past months? And, what is the progress on the schemes that you announced since the lockdown in Jharkhand?

Jharkhand has a strong labour force, and it could have been capitalised in a big way. In the past, it was not done by the state’s labour department. When I learnt that people migrate from the state in such large numbers, I was concerned. So, I started many schemes to generate employment.

We explored the MGNREGA scheme in a big way, and when compared to the last 20 years, we created a record number of jobs. The MGNREGA wages were also very low in the past and we also decided to increase it… We brought back girls who worked as bonded labourers in other states and now their monthly earnings have gone up. On December 29, our government completes a year, and by February-March we are hoping to create 10,000 jobs.

Our skilling schemes are also being implemented, and we are exploring different trade options. We are looking at products that can be used within the state. The country’s economic situation has been shaken because of the pandemic, and many of the industries that we approached are scared to invest now.

Also, because of some of the past schemes, there was a loss of trust. We have been working on rebuilding that trust and many industry players have given us a positive response and are preparing to invest in a big way… Mines and minerals have been the general employment sector in the state. We are trying to explore other avenues as well. We give 4-5 lakh cycles to poor children every year, which means we purchase 5 lakh cycles in a year. Why then do we not have a cycle plant in the state? So we are now telling corporates to set up production units here, which will generate employment and also help with social activities in the state.

ABHISHEK ANGAD: You recently conducted reviews of state government departments. Why did you feel the need to do that, and what did you learn from it?

The executive bodies, bureaucracy help implement our ideas and vision on the ground. But we have been a little disappointed on this account. I saw a little less creativity… Their role is not just about implementing ideas…matters such as wealth collection are also important. If there is a crisis of wealth in the state, nothing can happen. In such a case, all you can do is implement the Centre’s schemes. And what happens is that when the schemes start, it is a 50:50 sharing (between the Centre and the state), then it becomes 60:40, then 70:30, and finally the state government has to bear all the expenses.

Today, there is a lot of concern over the fact that our state’s budget is Rs 85,000 crore, but the actual resources are only worth Rs 25,000 crore. Of this, about Rs 18-19,000 crore is given in salaries. What kind of work can happen in Rs 8-10,000 crore?

So that is why we held meetings with all PSUs and mine owners in the state, and reviewed the business that they conducted with the government. I was surprised to find that many of the Centre’s bodies such as SAIL, Coal India had dues to the tune of lakhs of crores of rupees. In the first meeting itself, we found that Coal India had to give us Rs 1.5 lakh crore, and with interest, the Centre owes us Rs 3 lakh crore. To recover this money, we have formed a committee under the leadership of the chief secretary.

We also brought reforms in the taxation system. You know that the GST has broken the back of state governments. The way the government is distancing itself, soon we will become helpless.

I have been flagging these issues in meetings with the Prime Minister. I said that in these times of economic crisis, the role of the state government should also be looked into. But that didn’t happen and the Centre has been formulating its own rules… The country’s federal system exists only in name.

(On Jharkhand’ bureaucracy) In the past 20 years, the BJP has been in power most of the time in the state. Before my term, there was a double-engine government in the state, and those five years weighed the state down. People died of hunger, there were farmer suicides, lack of employment… The previous government has failed in addressing these issues. We have never done road shows outside the state. We want to hold events in the state to attract people here, through tourism etc. For instance, we have a school like Netarhat Residential School which has produced innumerable IAS officers, writers, poets… It is not just an educational institution but also a heritage site. So I feel that Jharkhand actually does not need to ask for help from outside. But now we are being forced to do so… The indifference of the previous governments, and the ways of the bureaucracy have been responsible for this.

ABHISHEK ANGAD: You mentioned deaths due to starvation. Why has your government said in the Assembly then that no such deaths have happened in the state? Earlier this year, a man is said to have died of starvation in Bokaro.

See, if there are faults, we must admit and address them. In the past one year we have worked a lot on the upliftment of the social sector in the state, and we have set an example for the country. You have mentioned one incident, and if it is true, then it is very sad. Those responsible for it will be punished. We won’t let them get away or hide the facts. But for the future, we are strengthening the systems, so that such an incident never happens.

During the pandemic, we ran Didi Kitchens in every panchayat, on highways. For three-four months, about four crore people were given free meals. Using our own resources, we have ensured that 15 lakh ration cards are made, and they will be distributed from December 29 onwards. No one will be without ration.

We have also decided to have a corpus in panchayats, so that even if one person has a complaint, a ration card is arranged for them. So yes, even one incident (of starvation death) will be taken seriously by the government.

SANTOSH SINGH: There have been accusations of special treatment for jailed RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, who has been admitted at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi for over two years now. How would you respond to that? Also, your party couldn’t join the alliance with the RJD during the Bihar elections. Do you have any regrets regarding that?

As far as Laluji is concerned, the help extended to him is in terms of health services. The same hospital also has the biggest Covid-19 ward… Now, if something happens, the state government is responsible for it. When we shifted him to a private ward, the Covid-19 infection was at its peak. Where he was being treated earlier, the building attached to his ward was our coronavirus headquarter. The decision to shift him to a cottage was an administrative one. The cottage was empty. If it was not so, he would have been moved to a room in the hospital. It was not a political decision by the government.

(Alliance in Bihar elections) Yes, it was sad. We could have helped the RJD in a few seats, and maybe the Opposition bore the brunt of it, and the RJD failed to come to power yet again in the state.

HARIKISHAN SHARMA: Farmers have been protesting against the three new farm laws at Delhi’s border for many days now. Non-BJP-ruled states such as Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have passed laws in their states to counter the Centre’s laws. Do you plan to do the same in the future?

If one looks at it from a layman’s point of view, then laws which make black marketing, hoarding, profiteering legal, how can the people support it? Ordinarily, all these activities are considered a crime. I think now only the farmers are on streets, but once the effect of the laws is evident, all kinds of people will come out to protest. It is not right to push 125 crore people in hell for the benefit of a few. I can’t support it.

The demands of the farmers don’t seem too big. They only want the Minimum Support Price to be legally fixed so that buying below that price becomes a crime. I can’t support the new laws. The government has taken decisions in a rush.

MANOJ C G: While you defeated the BJP in Jharkhand, the Opposition has largely failed to give the BJP a good fight in many other states. Why is that?

It is a big question. The Opposition’s weaknesses have made the BJP strong. The divisions within the Opposition are also to blame. The Opposition does not have anyone to give it a direction.

MANOJ C G: The Congress is the country’s biggest Opposition party. What would your advice be for Rahul Gandhi and the party?

Political developments happen from time to time. The Congress’s regional leadership is quite strong in many parts of the country. But to coordinate between all Opposition parties and present a joint opposition to the BJP is a very big challenge. There needs to be a middle path to develop a strategy. We need to examine the politics in small pockets and then strategise… The Congress is a big organisation, it has think-tanks, this can be done. The Opposition has to first accept the ground reality of the country.

MANOJ C G: After the Bihar elections, there were talks about how giving the Congress party 70 seats to contest in the state was not a good decision. Is the Congress becoming a liability for regional parties?

If a few of us had also joined the alliance, the performance could have been better. It would not be right to say that the government could not be formed because of the Congress. It is not just important to win seats, but we also need a strong alliance that is on the same page.

DIPANKAR GHOSE: Recently, Union Minister Piyush Goyal said that if the farmers’ protest is freed from Maoist and Naxal forces, they will understand the benefit of the new laws. In the past, people arrested in the Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case have been labelled as ‘urban Naxal’. As a state that has experience in dealing with Naxalism, how do you look at these developments?

The issue of urban Naxalism has been a talking point across the country for some time now. In Jharkhand, (Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist) Stan Swamy was arrested (in October in the Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case). Maoism has never scared me, I move around freely in my state. One question that we need to ask here is whether these people we are talking about are ideological Maoists or dummy Maoists. It would be unfair to brand a social activist a Maoist. Jharkhand has a large population of SC/ST communities which have been exploited by different sections. If some people help these communities, they should not be branded Maoists.

There are dummy Maoists in the state who pushed black marketing of minerals. For the first time, we released pictures of such Maoists in newspapers and television channels, so that everyone knows who these people are, and we get the support of locals in solving the problem… About 80 per cent of the state is rural. If we give priority to rural regions in our development programmes, then such (Maoist) activities won’t last long.

(On Piyush Goyal’s comment) I heard that he even said Pakistan and China are involved (in the farmers’ protest). When such a senior leader makes such a comment… The new generation must think about the basis of such statements. The BJP’s rate of spreading propaganda is very high… Insulting farmers like this… There have been several farmers’ protests in the past. If we look at them with suspicion, it will hurt the community a lot. They provide food to the entire country and they should not be facing such allegations.

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