DHARAMSHALA: Selling trinkets and woolens in the bustling Kotwali Bazar here, Rajkumar Singh is engaged in an animated discussion with some Congress supporters. “The state is in debt and yet Rajaji (chief minister Virbhadra Singh) has pledged to make Dharamshala the second capital of the state. If you can justify that, my vote is for you,” he says to them.
The Congressmen are stumped by the poser here in this beautiful town in Kangra district, some 250 km from Shimla, currently the singular capital of Himachal Pradesh.
It’s true that the hill state is reeling under a debt of Rs 45,213 crore, about 38.3 per cent of its GDP. Sceptics are not convinced that a second capital is the need of the hour.
“Can any government with such a huge debt afford to have a second capital? Jammu & Kashmir spends Rs 150 crore annually for the Durbar Move,” says retired professor Ravi Sharma.
Virbhadra’s announcement had come out of the blue. It was on March 10 that the state government announced Dharamshala as the second capital. Few had even voiced a demand for a second capital. So why?
The reason is that Kangra district has 15 Assembly seats out of a state total of 68. The Kangra-Chamba parliamentary constituency envelops no less than 20 seats. So it’s axiomatically said that whichever party carries Kangra will form the government in Shimla. The axiom has held true for two decades.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has previously sounded alarms on the state’s debt burden. The state government was taking new loans to repay old ones even as the budget for capital expenditure was shrinking year by year. The auditor reported that the state borrowed Rs 13,555 crore in the last four years (2013-2017) and warned that “Himachal Pradesh is headed towards a major debt trap.”
A senior bureaucrat in Shimla, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it would be practically impossible for the government – of any party -- to invest in a second capital. For example, he says, “a week-long winter session of the Vidhan Sabha in Dharamshala would cost at least Rs 2 crore to the state exchequer. “Vehicles have to move, offices have to move, ministers and officials have to travel up. That’s for just one week. What might be the expenditure for months?”
In Dharmshala, people are lukewarm to the whole idea. “Rajaji’s announcement initially made us happy. We thought it would bring development but I’m not so sure now,” said Ajendar Kaur, who runs a dhaba here. “After the announcement was made, hardly a minister bothered to visit Dharamshala for months.”
The chief minister’s justification is that a second capital in Dharamshala will obviate the need for people of Kangra to travel the long distance to Shimla.
Shimla-based political analyst Harwinder Singh says the travel time between Shimla and Dharamshala is about six hours, hardly long enough to justify a ten-fold increase in administrative expenditure.