Central discrimination” and “a package for Punjab” are no longer the code words in Parkash Singh Badal's pronouncements. Before a change of government at the Centre in May 2014, the issue dominated almost each of his political discourse. Initially, as coalition partners, the Badals did raise the issue of package for the cash-strapped, debt-stressed state in their meetings with Modi and Jaitley. Apparently, a Central rebuff has forced an Akali rethink. While distributing special assistance of Rs 1,082 crore to four states — Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and Tamil Nadu — on the recommendations of Niti Aayog, the Centre has left Punjab in the cold and the Akalis have not uttered a word.
The aid distribution looks arbitrary and it is difficult to delink politics from the Central largess to select states. Centre-state financial relations are governed by certain principles. There is also a provision for special aid to specific categories such as the hill, north-eastern and insurgency-hit states like Jammu and Kashmir. Chief Minister Badal and his deputy used to plead for a waiver of Punjab's outstanding militancy-related debt of Rs 1.02 lakh crore and seek a refund of Rs 2,694 crore already paid. They also asked for concessions extended to Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. During UPA rule the Finance Ministry under Pranab Mukherjee had constituted a committee to ease the debt stress of Kerala, West Bengal and Punjab. A conditional package was stitched together but it got lost in the political warfare between two Badal cousins. The Modi dispensation, however, has persistently cold-shouldered the Badals’ financial demands. Together they have buried the Rs 12,000 crore grain “scam” the RBI had hinted at. The Badal government has been allowed to borrow Rs 31,000 crore more to settle the “procurement loan”.
Whatever the Badals’ political compulsions, Punjab urgently needs Central help to avert a disaster waiting to happen. The state's water resources are drying up, getting polluted or both. Farmer earnings end up in fighting diseases, particularly cancer, or installing submersible pumps. In its preoccupation with SYL, the political class has ignored the obvious threats to human health and agriculture. Since the state cannot fund a rescue plan, a Central bailout alone can ward off the catastrophe-in-the-making.
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