Friday, April 28, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Punjab minister embarrasses govt
By P P S Gill
Tribune News Service

CHANDIGARH, April 27 — Willingness to go abroad at the slightest pretext by the Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Mr Swarna Ram, has embarrassed the Punjab government.

It all started with a proposal received by the Chief Minister from a cultural organisation in Bihar suggesting Punjab send a bhangra team to Silver Dollar City in the USA to participate in the Worldfest.This was in December, 1999.

The letter was sent to the department of Cultural Affairs for processing. The Punjab Sakatret Cultural Society, which has an equation with the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, got involved and consequently a list of almost 26 people, all claiming to be bhangra dancers, was prepared and submitted to the minister.

Seeing an opportunity to visit the USA, the minister, sources said, put his name in the list as “leader” of the troupe and also of his son, Mohan Lal, besides, his P.A , Mr Sodhi Ram. Among “key” persons in the troupe were Manpreet Singh, son of Mr Hardeep Singh Bambra, Officer on Special Duty in the Chief Minister’s Office (Residence) and that of Mr S.C. Bhateja, P.A. to former Chief Minister, Ms Rajinder Kaur Bhattal.

The list was sent to the US Embassy in New Delhi with a demi-official letter signed by the Minister. All this while the department of Cultural Affairs was neither keen on sponsoring the trip nor its senior functionary was willing to accompany it. Even a note put up to the minister by the secretary concerned “disfavoured” the visit for obvious reasons, The main argument being that no one could stand a guarantee that all those going to the USA will return. Despite fears and apprehensions the minister overruled the secretary and wrote directly to the embassy seeking visas for the troupe.

The director, cultural affairs was called by the embassy and asked if he could give an assurance of return by all. He, it is said, refused to do so. Thereafter the embassy screened the list and rejected nearly half-a-dozen applications. Among the rejected applicants were Mr Sodhi Ram, P.A. to the Minister.This incensed him. To act as a spoil sport he is reported to have made the minister write yet another letter to the embassy “withdrawing” the list on the premise that it contained names of certain persons who were “suspect” and were “wanted by the authorities”.

Infuriated by the action of Mr Sodhi Ram the others protested vehemently to the minister, they said he had cast aspersions on others and had in ways more than one transgressed his authority. Thereupon, the minister again wrote a demi-official letter to the embassy that he had been “misinformed” and had consequently written for the withdrawal of the list based on anonymous complaints. This last letter was written on April 24.

This has created a piquant situation. In the first place the minister is not supposed to write directly to the embassy, say sources. Having sent two contradictory letters within a short span of six days, he has further put himself in an awkward situation and embarrassed the state government.

Enquiries by TNS have revealed that in the past too the Cultural Affairs Department, which has always been starved of funds, would not sponsor such cultural delegations and troupes. It would only recommend the names of artistes who would self-finance for their air fair with department not spending in any manner.

In this proposed visit also, incidentally, the Worldfest slot for Punjab was up to May 17, the finance department had sanctioned Rs 4 lakh only to cover the expense of the minister and his P.A. and an official of the Department of Cultural Affairs. The rest were to self-finance their trip.

Financially, so critical is the position of the Department of Cultural Affairs that it seldom gets the funds required for promotion of culture. So much so that commitments to the tune of Rs 12 lakh by the former minister, Bibi Jagir Kaur, have remained unimplemented. Ironically, while the present bhangra team was being assembled the department was sanctioned Rs 20 lakh on March 31 last by the Finance Department, including Rs 4 lakh for the Minister’s visit. This enables the department to make certain pending payments.

The Cultural department is weary of sending such delegations as unescorted troupe members cause problems later.Moreover financial constraints also do not permit it to undertake such ventures.

In this particular case the department was overruled by the minister at the bidding of the PA, who reportedly made him sign contradictory letters to the embassy. The department had even said that the Chief Minister’s approval be sought for the visit. In all probability the visit is now off.

One of the parents whose son could not make it for the visa confided in TNS that the minister had no business to comment on others which had resulted in branding them “ suspects”.

The TNS tried to contact the minister in Chandigarh but he was away to Phagwara. When a call was made there he was not available. A message was left with his wife, who gave his cell-phone number, which was not responding.

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