By: Varun Rattan Singh
Minister of Urban Development and Member of Legislative Assembly, Sudhir Sharma, has a rich legacy in Himachal politics. He is grandson of Late Krishan Dutt, a former Congress party member and Freedom Fighter; and son of Late Pt. Sant Ram, former President of the Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee and Cabinet Minister in Himachal Pradesh Government. He was called as an outsider by the opposition when he was entrusted with the job of fighting elections from the Dharamshala constituency. Yet, the people voted for the outsider. Sharma hasn’t let them down. Two and half years later, he claims that Dharamshala is the first town in the state with all roads tarred and that has 24*7 water supply.
In an in-depth interview with Varun Rattan Singh of HimVani, Sharma talks about the work he has done and his future plans. Excerpts:
Varun: You came to Dharamshala as an outsider. What was the thought playing in your mind at that time?
Sudhir Sharma: Before the general elections I was in Delhi for two months and straight away came to Dharamshala to contest the elections. It was not planned and I was not in touch with the party organisation members here. Everything was new for me.
Considering that Dharamshala is a good mix of cosmopolitan and rural areas and is headquarters to some parties, I thought that it would be a quite developed area and that I would be able to cover it entirely in the given time for my campaigning. But when I started moving in the area around Dharamshala town and even the town itself, I realised the things were different. But I cannot blame the previous representatives for everything. May be they didn’t get this type of opportunity of required funds. I think, I have been fortunate enough to get required funds and to develop the infrastructure. This the first town in state where concreting the roads has been done; where 24×7 water supply is coming and laying of underground pipelines is being done and many other things are in pipeline.
I believe Dharamshala will become one of the most beautiful towns of North India.
We already have invited a Hong–Kong based company to look at the urban plan of Dharamshala area, and ensure that we won’t turn like Shimla and Manali where we don’t have any open spaces.
Varun: So should we say that Dharamshala has been lucky that you have been elected and that you have been given a portfolio which allows you to do this kind of activity?
Sudhir Sharma: I think I’ve been fortunate that while I got elected, Congress too came into power; and I was inducted into the Cabinet and was given this portfolio… Yes, you are right that it gives me the opportunity to deliver whatever I can.
Varun: These days politics and governance has moved in the direction that how politicians are approachable or amenable to people… So what has been your approach to reaching out to your constituents?
Sudhir Sharma: Whenever I travel to villages and panchayats, I tell them that they don’t have to call me on my phone, as I cannot attend each and every call. So I suggest to them to send me an SMS or mail to me. Earlier, people didn’t get that kind of opportunity. So while visiting people, I tell them that I don’t like people coming with someone for their work. Whosoever comes with them will first try to get his/her personal work done and piggy ride on the mass. So they should approach directly rather than get someone along.
Varun: Another interesting thing which we have observed in the last two years is that you are doing a lot of innovative stuff in connecting with your constituency — like we have seen you sending greeting cards, we have seen you come out with an annual report of your work, which was again widely circulated. So how did these ideas come out?
Sudhir Sharma: I contested elections for the first time in 1998. This was my fourth election since the time I came into politics. Earlier even my father used to contest. I have seen him writing hand written letters or post cards to people. I learnt things from him; and being a local representative it’s my duty also to wish everyone at least on New Year and update them with the progress in the health sector, education and other departments. This way people know what’s happening. I have seen that political parties or political personalities come out with such kind of things during election only and then people think of it as a mere propaganda and that doesn’t appeal.
Varun: We look at a lot of interviews and notice that you focus too much on giving numbers… So many crores spent on this… so much on that… is that important is that something that your constituents are really looking for?
Sudhir Sharma: No, I don’t think so. But when you are in the government and especially if you are part of the Cabinet you have to be correct with the numbers also and have to tell people how much fund has been allocated for which work. Ultimately, what matters is what you deliver on the ground and what is benefiting the community.
Varun: We have spoken to some people in the past few days. They feel that the constituents are not really aware of what the roles and responsibilities of the elected members are. Do you also feel so?
Sudhir Sharma: I feel it is the responsibility of the elected representative to spread awareness and ask people to come up with suggestions.
Mostly, I have seen since my childhood that politicians are busy in transfer postings in Himachal and so are the people associated with them. So, no one really comes up ideas or suggestions and what should be done for the area or what will be good for state.
If politicians think public is responsible for this, the system is equally responsible too. But I think the times are changing.
Varun: Beyond Dharamshala what is your development plan for the whole state?
Sudhir Sharma: To start with, we have done an agreement with Nexus Novas, a Netherlands company to conduct a feasibility study for making the state a ‘Waste Free’ or ‘Zero Waste State’. Netherlands has advanced in different sectors of urban development and there is a vast scope for the replication of advanced technologies and management practices in Himachal Pradesh. We have made two zones – Dharamshala and Sundernagar. Dharamshala Zone will cover Dharamshala, Kangra, Nagrota, Nurpur , Jwalaji and Palampur, where we are going to put new garbage disposals systems, LED lighting for the towns… they have a very good project of underground dustbins.
We see most of the garbage is out of the bins and stray cattle, monkeys and stray dogs are also going into the garbage. So to check that and other things, we have come up with the plan.
We have also come up with some ropeway projects. One is from Kotwali to McLeodganj and other is from Chamunda to Himani; another one is from Shimla Bus Stand to Ridge. I think these projects will help in traffic de-congestion and visitors too will have some alternate travel options.
Varun: What are your plans for the real estate sector and how do hope to regularise it?
Sudhir Sharma: We have come with the new Act that is Town Planning Act and an amended Act in 2014. Once new developments start, bazaars will have to be according to Himachali architecture; there will be quotas for Himachalis… However, currently the real estate sector as such is not performing well and unfortunately not too many investors are coming to the state.
Varun: I think more than the sector, a lot of investors shy away from Himachal because of our policies of clearance; and Himachal is not a single window state.
Sudhir Sharma: Yes, it takes too much time. I think getting 118 is the toughest job for any investor. You are right, we should we have single window system. Projects too should be time specified that if some investment is coming whether may be any sector they should get permission on time because no industrialist is going to wait for such a long time. They can go anywhere in the world where they get so many attractive packages.
Varun: The Town and Country Planning Department plays a crucial role in whatever ideas you have to implement. What kind of steps are you taking to strengthen the department?
Sudhir Sharma: The Town and Country Planning – is a department, which scares the normal citizen, because it was understaffed. We are recruiting more qualified people and have opened new offices in the last one year.
We are simplifying processes too. For example, earlier for a map permission, one had to go to the Town and Country Planner and then to your local body. We have decided to do away with the urban local body. An individual should not be charged twice and he should not have to run to all the authorities around to get one permission. Meanwhile, under the new Act, if a new educational institute like any university or any hospital or medical college comes up in any area, it will be deemed urban automatically.
Varun: We have been hearing this news of airport expansion in Dharamshala for a long time; how serious is the government about it?
Sudhir Sharma: The government just has to do one thing. It has to provide land to Airport Authority of India (AAI). That land is about 125 acres and the status is clear. It is a no forest land. So we have constituted a team which will be handing over that part of land to AAI. As far as extension is concerned, we can’t expand much towards Gaggal as it is very densely populated area; so we have to go towards Shahpur and that strip will be created by filling up the low lying areas, which will give us another 300 to 350 meters of extra runway.
AAI is also installing a device which increases visibility during bad weather. Currently, many flights get cancelled due to poor visibility conditions. AAI also is talking to Bharat Petroleum to come up with a fuel station here. Currently, all operating flights operate with more fuel and less passengers. Which adds up for high fare rates too. Once we have a refuelling station here, more passengers can be carried and ticket fares too will go down. Combined with better visibility and refuelling station, more flights can be operated.
Varun: Is there any deadline for this project?
Sudhir Sharma: We want to have the devices for better visibility and the refuelling station before the Paragliding World Cup scheduled in the month of October this year. This is the first time India is hosting the Paragliding World Cup and 48 countries are participating in it. I have been chosen the President of that association and we are trying to improve the infrastructure around that area.
Varun: Thank You for your time and wishing you all the best for the Paragliding World Cup and future.
(The interview has been edited and excerpted for language and sequence consistencies)