Punjab may be governed by a coalition of the Shiromani Akali Dal and their ally for the second consecutive terms, but Parkash Singh Badal is merely the decorative chief minister of the state. The real power is wielded by his son and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Sukhbir has rapidly consolidated his clout ever since he attained power, political as well as economic. A politician going after political power is nothing exceptional, but his alleged economic ambitions have become somewhat burdensome for the businesses of the state.
The most notable is the Badal family and their associatesâ€™ takeover of the luxury bus transport sector in the past few years. According to a report in the Chandigarh paper Tribune , the familyâ€™s transport assets have had a phenomenal growth. According to this report:
â€śBesides acquiring new permits, the companies associated with the Badals have been on a permit-buying spree from other private transporters. This is especially so after December, 2012 order of the Division Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court which put a blanket ban on issuance of new permits.â€ť
The strange thing about these transactions is: why would a transporter want to sell off his permits when the field is so lucrative? More so, when the High Court has more or less closed off fresh competition, by prohibiting the issue of new permits.
That coalition partner BJP appears to be aware of the situation is evident from a statement of former transport minister Master Mohan Lal (he used to be a school master in a Pathankot school once upon a time and the honorific has stuck). He is also quoted in the Tribune report as saying:
â€śAs minister, I observed that buses owned by private companies were causing huge losses to the PRTC [PEPSU Roadways Transport Corporation] and the Punjab Roadways through clever methods. The private operators were running their buses on the same route as the government-owned buses but a few minutes prior to their schedule. As a result, while private buses get a house full, the government-run buses are empty. Besides, private operators run four to five buses on a single permit.â€ť
Who these â€śprivate operatorsâ€ť are of course, is already quite clear, but thereâ€™s more from the Master: â€śI tried to rein in the private transport mafia by raising the issue in Cabinet meetings and through the media but to no avail.â€ť
Things have come to a head with a couple of Punjab businessmen committing suicide in the last few weeks.
Now let us see the methods which are applied on lucrative businesses to make them pay up to, what the Master has called the â€śmafiaâ€ť. A couple of suicides by Punjab businessmen in the recent few weeks may be a pointer.
Businessman R. Gupta (32) hailed from the steel town of Mandi Gobindgarh. He committed suicide in early March this year. In his suicide note, he named a local Akali leader and the local ETO, who, he claimed had undertaken a campaign of harassment at the Akali leaderâ€™s behest. According to locals, there is no clear link in this case to the ruling clan as the business is too small. However, they feel these are copycat operations such as the senior leaders do. The local papers have covered this suicide in some detail, as for example, in the Chandigarh edition of The Indian Express.
The other suicide took place at the end of March. Jaswinder Singh â€śJassiâ€ť was a small time cable operator of Amritsar. According to a 2013 Tehelka report here the Punjab cable business has more or less become the monopoly of Fastways Cables, which is a company with linked to the Badals. (Interestingly, this report tells us how a Punjabi channel Day & Night TV was forced to close shop). Jassi fell foul of the wrong persons and knocked about for justice. He was a key witness in a cable TV sex scandal but he was, he claimed in his suicide note, forced to turn hostile. He tried to retract his testimony through an affidavit but was unsuccessful. As the icing on the cake, his small time cable operation began to feel the heat. He appealed to the authorities, and when he was turned down, he took out a bottle and consumed the contents (see video ) where he can be seen and heard shouting in Punjabi, â€śI will dieâ€ť pulling out a bottle out of his pocket and putting it to his mouth.
He died 2 days later. This Hindustan Times report gives some details. According to this report:
On the basis of Jassiâ€™s suicide note, police had initially registered a case under sections 306 (abetment to suicide) and 501 (attempt to suicide) of the Indian Penal Code (after Jassiâ€™s death, section 501 has been removed from the FIR)
Those whose names figure in the FIR are Gurdip Singh, managing director (MD), Fastway Cables; Sarabjit Singh Raju, local incharge of Fastway; and Akali leader Pritpal Singh Lalli.
Even the dusty streets of small town Punjab are rife with rumours of lucrative dhabas on the national highways, whose daily sales easily touch the six figure mark, being forced to sell or move out.
So pervasive are these rumours that before the last Lok Sabha elections it was felt that it was necessary to counter this. A TV artist denied in front of a camera that any dhaba had been taken over. If one googles â€śHaveli dhaba, Sukhbirâ€ť one will get a number of hits which all show this video .
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