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Progress byword for HP: CM
Rakesh Lohumi
Tribune News Service

Shimla, March 14
“For me, politics is commitment to public welfare”. This is how Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh sums up his political philosophy while asserting that he never believed in populism.

He answered a wide range of questions on issues ranging from religious conversions to economic growth and development of the state in an exclusive interview with The Tribune on the eve of the launching of its Himachal Pradesh edition. Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q. You are often accused of pursuing populist policies for electoral gains. How do you react to it?

A. I have never relied on populist policies to garner votes. Whatever plans and programmes I formulate spring from my deep personal commitment to the welfare of the people. The trend among the political leaders these days has been to pursue policies, which could yield immediate electoral gains but I have never bothered about short-term gains. At times such steps have to be taken but I never act in a huff and all my decisions are well-considered. If I feel strongly about an issue, I do not hesitate to act, whatever may be the consequences.

Do not forget that I have also taken some “bold” decisions like imposition of a moratorium on felling of trees and earned the wrath of the forest mafia. I had to fight protracted legal battles right up to the Supreme Court to vindicate my honour. Ultimately, truth prevailed and the ordeal only helped re-establish my credentials as “Mr Clean”. I strongly felt that the vanishing green cover would spell disaster for the fragile Himalayan eco-system. I did not have a second thought on imposing the ban.

In the process, the fund-starved state sacrificed annual forest revenue to the tune of Rs 100 crore. It was a big amount for a small hill state but the stakes for the country were much higher.

Further, I also took the initiative to replace wooden apple packing cases, which were a big drain on the depleting forest resources, by corrugated cartons. The powerful apple lobby turned against me but I stood my ground. Today, wooden packing cases are no longer in use and, as a result, 90,000 trees are being saved every year.

Q. Your latest step to enact the freedom of religion law has attracted much criticism and some religious organisations have even complained to the Congress high command against you. Does it really hurt the minorities?

A. There is no reason for anyone to oppose the law as religious conversions have not been banned. It only lays down a transparent procedure for voluntary change of faith to ensure that there are no forced conversions by way of allurements, coercion or other foul means. The BJP has been exploiting the issue for political gains all these years but it could not muster political courage to take any corrective measures. In fact, the maximum number of religious conversions took place from 1998 to 2003, which created social tensions in the peaceful hill state. There was an urgent need to nip the evil in the bud lest the social atmosphere should get vitiated. It is the courage of conviction, which enables a leader to take bold decisions.

Q. The Congress has been accused of diluting Section 118 of the Land Reforms and Tenancy Act by allowing SEZs and the entry of private builders in the housing sector who sell properties to outsiders. Do you feel that there is need to review the policy?

A. Section 118 is vital for safeguarding the interests of the poor Himachali farmers who have small land holdings, besides preserving the socio-cultural identity of the hill state. Its sanctity has to be maintained, while allowing SEZs and private housing projects. Even if the farmers are paid adequate price for their land, they suffer in the long run as they are left without any means of livelihood. There could be some lacunae in the scheme, particularly in the State Apartments Act, which will be rectified. All the loopholes will be plugged by amending the Act.

The state could ill-afford to open the floodgates for outsiders as it would not only alter the demographic composition but also transform its social and cultural character. Moreover, it would have serious implications for internal security. We must learn from what has happened in the Northeast. Above all, the fragile hills do not have the carrying capacity to support a large population. Already, there are problems like water shortage, deforestation and traffic congestion.

Q. The Congress got the mandate on the plank of fighting corruption but the general perception is that the government was going soft on the issue. Is the allegation true?

A. This is not true. I had made it clear at the very beginning that the government would neither be vindictive nor would indulge in witch-hunting. Investigations are going on in a normal way and there is no overzealous attempt to settle scores with political opponents by misusing the official machinery as was done during the previous BJP regime.

Some cases are in the final stage. S.M. Katwal, a former chairman of the state subordinate services selection board, has been convicted in three cases pertaining to irregularities in recruitment. It is a direct indictment of the BJP bosses at whose behest he committed the irregularities.

Corruption was the main election issue but the mandate the Congress got was for good governance and not for pursuing political vendetta. There will be no compromise with corruption. If there is foolproof evidence against any political leaders, they will not be spared.

Q. Himachal Pradesh has come a long way since it came into being. How do you visualise its future?

A. Now, the state shows the way to the country in the field of education, health, social security and good governance. A strong and deeply committed leadership provided by successive Congress governments has played an important role in scripting this trail-blazing success story. Having remained Chief Minister for 16 years, I have also contributed my bit. With a growth rate of 9.3 per cent and per capita income rising at a higher rate than in prosperous states like Punjab and Haryana, the future of the state is bright. It can only march forward on the road to economic prosperity from here.

More importantly, Himachal Pradesh is today emotionally much more integrated and the line dividing the old and new areas has almost vanished. I could take legitimate credit for I have battled against the forces of regionalism all through my political career. Today there is complete unity among the people and regionalism as a political slogan has lost relevance. There is no regional divide among the people.

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The Tribune to launch HP edition today
Tribune News Service

Shimla, March 14
Responding to the demand of its readers for better coverage of the hill state, The Tribune is launching its Himachal Pradesh edition.

The launch ceremony will be held at Peterhof, the state guest house, here tomorrow at 3 p.m. Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh will be the chief guest. A special supplement containing articles covering various aspects of the state will be released on the occasion.

Some of the oldest readers and agents of The Tribune in the state will also be honoured on the occasion.

The President of the Tribune Trust, Mr Justice R.S. Pathak, will be present at the function along with the other Trustees.

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