The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ever since the Congress came to power in Punjab in February, it has spent most of its time settling scores with the previous Shiromani Akali Dal government instead of concentrating on matters of governance. This has disappointed people of the state who would have liked the government to focus more on its own performance. The Parkash Singh Badal regime’s misdeeds are well-known. Its bureaucrats and ministers were so busy lining their pockets that the state treasury was virtually bankrupt at the end of five years.

Farmers and the educated youth were the worst sufferers of the Badal government’s faulty policies. While the latter were affected by the declining job market, the former were beset by rising debts resulting from the inability to sell surplus produce at competitive prices. The inability to clear their debts forced many farmers to commit suicide. Farmers in Punjab were also victims of flawed policies of land use which resulted in water-logging and rendered large areas of land uncultivable.

Naturally, the electorate was on the lookout for change. They picked on the Congress, which was the only other option available. But what Punjab needs perhaps is a third front of independent leaders who have an effective agenda to chart a new course for the state.

Official burden

As for the present Congress government, it has failed to kickstart industrialization, create employment opportunities or rejuvenate the farm sector. It has not taken a single step in this direction so far and obviously, the people of Punjab are worried.

Already the state is faced with an unprecedented financial crisis, the result of mounting debt and an unwieldy administration. The state has the largest number of high-level officials for its size; it could function equally well with only two-thirds that number.

Although the government has talked of laying off low-ranking officials and is also supposedly planning to close down many of its loss-making corporations, it has never contemplated cutting down the oversized top layers of the bureaucracy.

Punjab has a number of loss-making companies that are a drain on its resources, but no attempt has been made to fix responsibility for their poor performance. The blame is usually pinned on lower level functionaries while the top brass is spared. With proper restructuring, there is a scope for several of these corporations to start functioning properly and, in some cases, even make profits. Only those corporations that are beyond redemption should be got rid off, after ensuring that their employees find jobs in other organizations.

Immense potential

Punjab has the potential to become an important industrial centre. At one stage, it was the foremost state for small and medium industries. But in the absence of a well-considered industrial policy the situation in the state is very different now. Despite being aware of the mess, the present government has not come up with a remedy. No wonder, Punjabi businessmen who have been successful in other states and in other countries hesitate to invest here. Nor has the state been able to attract foreign investment like its neighbour, Haryana.

The lack of a dynamic and entrepreneur-friendly industrial policy is particularly sad given the state has good infrastructure. It has a wide network of roads and adequate power supply. There is also abundant supply of qualified manpower.

It is time the state government focused its attention on tapping this potential and helping the state reclaim its position as one of the top states in terms of industrial growth, especially in the agro-industries and engineering sector. The government could also invite entrepreneurs like N.R. Narayanamurthy to explore possibilities in information technology. There are many things the government can do to improve the state’s economic condition, but only if it stops wasting time on settling old scores.

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