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Chandigarh, (Gurpreet): Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh on Friday made it clear that there was no question of withdrawing free power to farmers in the state, and the same will continue as long as he is leading the government.

The Chief Minister said that though the report of the Montek Singh Ahluwalia led experts group was only a preliminary one, his government would not consider any recommendation on withdrawal of free power by any expert. “As long as I am here, free power to tubewells will continue,” he said, reacting to media reports.

Montek himself clarified during a Video Conference interaction with the Chief Minister that the report of the expert group was not anti-farmer. Media reports suggesting so were misleading, he said, adding that what the group had suggested was diversification as the only hope for Punjab agriculture.

Montek said that since the state government had categorically announced that it had no plans to change its free power for farmers policy, the expert group had recommended that farmers must be incentivise to diversify out of rice, since the water intensive crop was economically profitable for farmers even though the ecological damage was massive. Diversification implies a reduction in area under rice and modernisation of marketing, which in turn implies a much larger role for the private sector, said Montek.

The expert group under Montek Singh Ahluwalia was set up by the Chief Minister to formulate a strategy for post-Covid economic revival of Punjab.

Captain Amarinder said diversification had already been started in Punjab during his first term as chief minister. He pointed out that the state had significantly increased cotton this year by reducing paddy, but the problem of price support remains a big obstacle to diversification. The farmers need MSP for alternate crops to incentivise them away from paddy, he added.

Punjab was a power-surplus state, which was why his government had also fixed industrial power rate at Rs 5/unit, in order to incentivise industry to invest in the state, the Chief Minister said. He underlined the need for promoting industry with the potential to generate more employment. Noting that no modern economy could grow only on agriculture, the Chief Minister stressed the importance of focusing on industrialisation. He suggested setting up a world-class university in Mohali to accelerate investment. Though the current situation was grim, Punjab would bounce back, he asserted.

Underscoring the need for long-term planning to restore Punjab to its position of pre-eminence, Montek said while the state had done better than others in handling the Covid crisis, it would need to increase allocation for health, like the rest of the country. Similar pandemics could not be ruled out in the future, he warned, adding that in the medium term, public health expenditure needs to be pushed up to 20% of the total for the next five years.

The experts group has suggested some short-term measures to kickstart economic revival and tap the growth that the state can expect to see happening during FY 21-22, after a period of de-growth.

Suggesting radical policy changes to reverse the declining trend, Montek said these would need to be anchored directly by the Chief Minister’s office, in association with industry representatives, to avoid any bureaucratic resistance to change. Noting that Punjab needed more improvement in ease of doing business index, he said mid-2021 should be kept as target by the state to complete the necessary changes for triggering the wave of industrialisation. Of the 128 recommendations listed by the group, even if 100 are met, Punjab would make major strides in industrial growth, he added. “Our objective should be to have made enough changes in   the existing rules and regulations over the next six months that industry on the ground feels that things have changed significantly,” he said, calling it the best guarantee of being able to attract investment from 2021 onwards.

Besides Chief Secretary Vini Mahajan and senior officials of the Punjab government, the VC was attended by Prof. M. Govinda Rao, Dr. Ashok Gulati, Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, Prof. Nirvikar Singh, Simon George, Dr. B.S. Dhillon, Iqbal Dhaliwal, Pramod Bhasin, Rahul Ahuja, Karan Ghilotra and other members of the expert group.

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