Chandigarh: Punjab’s new cabinet ministers, who were allotted their portfolios Tuesday, may just come under greater scrutiny.
That is because the ministers, many of them detractors of former chief minister Amarinder Singh, have been handed departments that handle issues they had raised when Singh was at the helm. It was one of their chief grouses against him.
New Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has assumed charge of 14 departments, which include mining, excise and taxation, and power. Of his old departments of technical education, employment generation and tourism, he has retained tourism.
The departments Channi has kept with himself are fewer in number than the 22 that Amarinder headed, but on his shoulders lie two crucial tasks — ending illegal mining and reducing electricity charges for consumers.
Channi had mentioned both these as his priorities in the first press conference he addressed after taking oath last Monday.
At the nub of the electricity tariff issue is the power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed by the Punjab government with private power producers during the time of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine.
In the run-up to the 2017 polls, both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had alleged that the terms of the PPA were loaded in favour of the private players, leading to consumers getting expensive power.
Both parties had promised to cancel the PPAs if they came to power. However, despite being in power for almost four-and-half years, Amarinder did nothing to cancel these agreements. He reasoned that the move would invite litigation and the matter would take too much time to resolve.
The fact that Amarinder had failed to fulfill his promise of ensuring affordable power was among the main bones of contention between him and his detractors in the Punjab Congress.
Now with Channi heading the power department, all eyes will be on him to see if he cancels the PPAs.
Similarly, ahead of the 2017 polls, the Congress and AAP had alleged that Akali leaders in power had been patronising illegal mining in the state. Ending illegal mining was also among the prime election promises made by the Congress.
Although nothing much was done during Amarinder’s leadership, in his press conference last Monday, Channi promised that this too would be a priority area. Now with the mining department also with him, he will have to walk the talk.
Randhawa gets home, sacrilege cases under scanner
Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa has been handed the home department, a portfolio he had been eyeing ever since he was inducted into the cabinet in 2018. Amarinder had denied him the portfolio at that time, and had kept it with himself.
Randhawa’s earlier departments of jails and cooperation too remain with him.
Randhawa has been the most vocal against Amarinder for his failure to supervise the investigation into the cases related to the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 and police firing that killed two Sikh protesters.
Randhawa and other leaders supporting him during the rebellion, including Channi, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa and Pargat Singh, have been alleging that former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal and then DGP Sumedh Singh Saini were responsible for the desecrations and the police firing. But they had never “been touched” in Amarinder’s tenure, despite multiple SITs of the Punjab Police investigating the cases.
Randhawa and the other rebel MLAs had also held the former CM’s advocate general, Atul Nanda, and his team responsible for the investigation into the firing cases falling flat in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in March this year.
Following the high court’s rejection of the investigation, a new SIT was set up to probe the incidents of firing. This SIT will now report to Randhawa and the onus is now on him to show the results that he has been demanding of Amarinder all these years.
Tackling drug abuse under Randhawa’s purview
The second issue that Randhawa has been raising against Amarinder has now fallen within his jurisdiction. Drug abuse was one of the major election issues in 2017 and it was alleged that the then Akali-BJP leadership was patronising drug trade.
Amarinder had promised to end the curse of drugs within a month of coming to power. He had even sworn this with a gutka (a sacred collection of Sikh hymns and Gurbani) in his hand. Randhawa had contended that Amarinder had failed to control the rampant availability of drugs.
Navjot Sidhu had also alleged that no action had been taken by Amarinder against Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia for his alleged involvement with the drug mafia. He referred to a report submitted by the state task force on drugs to the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Majithia’s alleged role in the drug trade.
Amarinder’s detractors had questioned why the report had not been made public and appropriate action not taken against Majithia. Now, with Randhawa as head of the home department, he is free to order that the report be made public and act accordingly.
Gidderbaha MLA Amrinder Singh Raja Warring has been given the transport department. Part of the rebel group, he had been attacking Amarinder for allowing the Badals to run private buses in the state through their transport companies. It is alleged that when Badals were in power they had allegedly procured the most profitable routes for their buses.
Now with Warring in charge, it is expected that the route permits given to the Badals’ firms will be cancelled.
The other Deputy Chief Minister Om Parkash Soni has been allocated health and family welfare. He had earlier also had medical education and research. His earlier two portfolios of defence services welfare and freedom fighters remain unchanged.
Among the newcomers, former hockey captain Pargat Singh has been made the education and sports minister while Gurkirat Kotli has been given industries and information technology. Sangat Singh Gilzian is the new forests and labour minister; Raj Kumar Verka has been given the departments of social justice and medical education, and Randeep Singh Nabha is the new agriculture and food processing minister.
Fifteen Punjab MLAs took oath as ministers in Channi’s cabinet Sunday. While the cabinet has seven new faces, the CM has removed five ministers from the previous Amarinder dispensation, and retained eight.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)