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November 17, 1999
Abdullah optimistic of a new package for J&K
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, who yesterday threatened to resign if his demand for a financial package for Jammu and Kashmir was not met, today appeared a mollified man. "I am an optimist and today's meeting has given me reason to remain optimistic," he told rediff.com
This afternoon, a high-level meeting to review the situation in Jammu and Kashmir was held in North Block, under the chairmanship of Union Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani. Attending were Abdullah and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. All three later addressed the press with Krishan Chandra Pant, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and various secretaries of the home ministry.
The meeting decided to set up a secretary-level committee to look into the state's needs. The committee, comprising officials from the Union ministries of home and finance, from Jammu and Kashmir, and from the Planning Commission, will hold its first meeting on Monday, November 8. The committee will be chaired by Planning Secretary Dr N C Saxena.
Today's meeting reviewed two aspects relating to Kashmir: security, especially in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on army camps; and the development of the state.
At the conference, Abdullah reiterated his threat to resign unless the state's financial and security needs were met. "I have not become chief minister so that one day my body will be taken to the graveyard in a gun carriage. I have become chief minister to do something for my state," he said.
Abdullah had earlier demanded that the state's entire debt, amounting to more than Rs 10 billion, be written off. At the press conference, he declared that his state needs another Rs 10 billion for its development and security-related expenses and to ensure complete victory over the militants.
But Finance Minister Sinha refused to commit himself to either. "No decisions have been reached, though all options are being considered. The secretaries' meeting on Monday will decide the best course of action," he said.
The finance minister also pointed out that expenses relating to development and security had not been separated. "The financial package will be for both since security and development go hand in hand."
The package being worked out for Jammu and Kashmir, he said, is in two parts. "The first package is for meeting the state's immediate financial needs so as to ensure that the state can meet its plan requirements for this year (the current financial year ends on March 31, 2000). The second is a medium-term plan, to be spread over the next three to five years, to push up the state's development."
But Abdullah said his state was fighting a war against Pakistan and no help should be considered too big. "I don't know why the media calls it a proxy war. It is a war that we have been fighting for over a decade now," he declared.
The chief minister pointed out that the state's main source of revenue was tourism, and this year the tourist inflow had been badly hit by the war in Kargil.
At the meeting between Abdullah and the central ministers, Sinha told the chief minister that Jammu and Kashmir was the only state whose negative balance of current revenues was being met by the Centre for the last many years. This had helped protect the funds for the state's capital expenditure.
He suggested that the state take advantage of various schemes announced by the Centre for the construction of roads, irrigation and other infrastructure projects.
But Abdullah said Jammu and Kashmir was the only state to have taken unpopular decisions to help balance its fiscal situation. "Which other state in India had the courage to increase the price of electricity in an election year?" he demanded.
The finance minister appreciated the tough decisions taken by Abdullah, but stressed the need for greater financial discipline and also to ensure that the funds reach the common man. Abdullah promised these, including a further reduction in the interest rates offered by the Jammu and Kashmir Bank.
In fact, when reporters quizzed Abdullah about the alleged corruption in the state that often hurt the common man, he reacted angrily, "What corruption?"
Later, speaking to rediff.com, Abdullah said he was seeking a special package not just for his state, but also for other states hurt by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. "I told the Centre that the debt waiver and grant of Rs 10 billion should be not just for Jammu and Kashmir but also for Assam, which has been badly affected by terrorist activities," he said.
In 1997, Prime Minister I K Gujral had waived Punjab's debt and given it a hefty grant on the grounds that the fight against Sikh terrorism was a war fought by the state of Punjab for the rest of India. Not coincidentally, Gujral is a Punjabi and contested the 1998 general election from Jalandhar, Punjab.
Asked if such munificence to Punjab but not to J&K and Assam amounted to partiality, Abdullah said diplomatically, "I have only told the central government that all affected states should be helped in equal measure."
The present meeting was the fourth in a series, but the first after the Kargil conflict and the formation of the new National Democratic Alliance government, of which Abdullah's National Conference is a part, at the Centre.
Asked if any progress had been made since the first meeting, Abdullah was emphatic: "Most certainly! In fact, today's meeting almost decided everything and the secretaries will only work out the details."
Asked if he would resign in case his demands were not met, Abdullah smiled, "Meet me after the Monday meeting!"
Pant told rediff.com that details of the financial package and its devolution were being worked out. "We have a specific plan for Jammu and Kashmir and we are ensuring that its requirements are met," he said.
Asked how the Centre would pay all its bills considered the yawning fiscal deficit, he replied, "This year our revenue has gone up, so that is one reason for optimism. But more importantly, there are funds available under various schemes that need to be used."
He said the Centre would carefully examine the state's demand for the waiver of all its debts and the grant of Rs 10 billion.
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