Old pension scheme emerges as key issue in Himachal polls

Supporters attend a rally ahead of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, at Sundar Nagar in Mandi district: PTI

Kasumpti: As Satpal, 78, attends to customers, an animated discussion is on outside his grocery shop in Kasumpti Bazar. They are debating the old pension scheme, which has emerged as a key election issue.

The Congress has promised to restore the old pension scheme (OPS), if voted to power in Himachal Pradesh after the November 12 assembly polls in the state.

EVMs and other voting material being loaded into an aircraft of the Indian Air Force for transportation to Kaza from DIET Helipad, ahead of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Lahaul & Spiti district: PTI

The OPS will benefit retired employees in a big way, feel most of the people in the group discussing the issue outside Satpal's shop named 'Himlaxmi'. But one person seems to differ, asking how the government will generate resources for it.

There are about 2.5 lakh government employees in the state, and out of them 1.5 lakh are covered under the New Pension Scheme.

There have been protests earlier by employees' associations against the new scheme in Shimla, Mandi, Kangra and Solan.

The old pension scheme, under which the entire pension amount was given by the government, was discontinued in the country from April 1, 2004. According to the new scheme, employees contribute 10 per cent of their basic salary towards pension while the state government contributes 14 per cent.

Polling employees participate in a final voting rehearsal ahead of Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Mandi: PTI

Satpal says it is up to the government to take a call on these demands, evading a direct reply when asked how big an issue OPS is in the elections.

Yashpal Singh, a voter in Banuti area of Shimla, also admits that the OPS is an important issue in the elections. "Congress can get benefit from it. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also popular in Himachal and it's difficult to say which party is going to win," he says.

Praveen Sharma, a voter of Shimla (Urban), says, "OPS, high inflation and unemployment are the main issues in the assembly elections."

From Kasumpti seat, Congress MLA Anirudh Singh of the erstwhile Koti royal family is seeking re-election. He is also a former chairman of the Shimla Zila Parishad.

Singh claims OPS is a big issue in the elections. "BJP has not uttered anything on this issue. Congress will restore OPS immediately after forming the government," he says.

The main contest from this seat is between Singh and state minister Suresh Bhardwaj, who was denied re-nomination from his Shimla (Urban) constituency.

From Shimla (Urban), BJP has fielded Sanjay Sood, who has been dubbed as a 'chaiwala' for owning a tea shop since 1991. Earlier, Sood used to sell newspapers at the bus stand.

Pradeep Sharma (60), who runs a sweet shop in Kasumpti Bazar, prefers not to say anything on OPS.

As he speaks, a car, part of Congress' poll campaign, passes through the narrow road of the bazar, making announcement that employees' demand will be met when Congress comes to power in the state.

AICC General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra addresses during a public meeting ahead of Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls, in Kangra district: PTI

About Kasumpti seat, Sharma says while good roads have been laid in most parts of the constituency, in the main bazar there is no public toilet while direct transport service to Inter State Bus Terminus is also missing.

Congress MLA Singh says people want to overthrow the Jairam Thakur government as it has "failed" on all fronts.

Singh takes a dig at the BJP over its 'double-engine government', saying "their engine has stopped to work now. All work was done in our constituency during Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government".

"I want to say that Congress is coming back to power with 50-plus seats (out of total 68)," says Singh.

BJP's Bhardwaj, who is Urban Development Minister, candidly admits that he is "new to this (Kasumpti) constituency".

"I humbly accepted the party's decision to shift my seat from Shimla (Urban) to Kasumpti," he says, adding that the sitting MLA here has not done much work in the area.

"The Congress is facing leadership crisis in Himachal," claims Bhardwaj.

The BJP has not won Kasumpti seat for nearly 20 years, but Bhardwaj hopes people will back the saffron party this time.

Security personnel take out a flag march ahead of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Mandi: PTI

Other important issues
Falling market prices of apple, demand for a medical college, and support to tourism have emerged as key election issues in the Kullu region which sends four legislators to the 68-member Himachal Pradesh assembly.

Horticulturists say rising input costs due to higher prices of fertiliser, pesticides and reduced government support have made apple farming a loss-making venture.

The Kullu region, the economy of which is dependent on tourism and horticulture, has four assembly seats of Manali, Kullu Sadar, Banjar and Anni.

"Apple growers are unhappy here as rates have fallen to the level of 2012 and 2013. Adani Ambanis are also manipulating the rates. This issue is going to impact elections in all the four seats in this apple belt," Naresh Chaudhary, an apple grower in Manali, said.

Apple growers here are also not happy with the ruling BJP over the hike in GST on the packaging and other input materials.

"Carton rates were increased just ahead of the apple marketing season which hit our income," Chaudhary said.

Another apple grower Durga Singh from Kullu said the ruling government had promised to open cold storage facilities in this region but did not fulfil it. "I think issues over apple rates and falling income and GST on packaging material will impact the prospects of the BJP in the four seats here," Singh said.

The demand for a medical college and upgradation of health facilities at the local hospital have also emerged as key election issues in the region. The economy of the Kullu region is mainly dependent on tourism and horticulture.

Sameer Singh, a local businessman, said that the local hospital at Kullu serves nearly 10 constituencies but there is lack of health facilities and expert doctors here.

"People here protested for 45 days this year for better facilities but the demands have not been met even as there are three MLAs from the BJP including a state minister," Singh said.

The BJP's promise to provide better compensation for the land acquired for Manali-Mandi highway has not been fulfilled which has angered voters here, a local said on the condition of anonymity.

Tourism-related facilities have not been developed in the region which is known for the famous tourist spots of Manali and Rohtang, a hotelier said.

Narendra Modi addresses during a public meeting ahead of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, at Sundar Nagar in Mandi district: PTI

"Hoteliers are also upset over the neglect of the industry by the state government during the Covid period. No financial help was given to the hospitality industry during the pandemic. Certainly, we will not vote for the ruling party," says Sanjeev Gandhi, who is the state coordinator of fora of hotel and restaurants associations in Himachal Pradesh.

Sanjana Gupta, a private teacher at a local school, is annoyed at the government for not filling vacancies in government schools.

“I am 42. I had been waiting for the recruitment for various posts by the government for the last five years. There are many like me who are waiting for government recruitment, Gupta said.

No one is thinking about private workers while parties are promising pensions and perks to government employees, Manjul Rana, a marketing executive of a private company in the area, said.

The BJP is facing an uphill task in all four seats due to dissidents. For Manali seat, the party has nominated MLA Govind Singh Thakur while Congress has given the ticket to Bhuvneshwar Gaur, son of former minister Rajkrishan Gaur.

BJP rebel Mahender Singh Thakur, who has the support of Four-lane Sangharsh Samiti, a group of locals fighting for better land compensation, is also in the fray as an independent candidate.

The BJP is facing the heat from dissident Ram Singh in Kullu Sadar seat where the ticket has been given to Narottam Singh Thakur.

The saffron party had announced senior BJP leader Maheshwar Singh as its candidate but dropped him on the last day of the nomination as his son decided to fight polls as independent from the Banjar seat. Congress has nominated sitting MLA Surendar Singh Thakur from Kullu Sadar.

The BJP has fielded sitting MLA Surender Shourie from Banjar despite the opposition from party leaders. Besides BJP rebel Hiteshwar Singh, Shourie is facing a challenge from Congress nominee Khimi Ram Sharma who joined the party recently. Khimi Ram Sharma was the former BJP state president and minister.

Congress and the BJP both facing challenges from dissidents in the fourth seat of Anni. The BJP dropped its two-time MLA Kishori Lal and nominated Lokender Kumar, who fought the 2017 polls as a CPI candidate for the seat.

Congress has given the ticket to Bansi Lal for the first time while dropping its 2017 candidate Paras Ram. Both Paras Ram and Kishori Lal are fighting polls as independent candidates, making the contest a hotspot.

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