‘I wanted to join a party where I could serve the people, a party that worked for the poor and I chose the PDP’

TNN Bureau. Updated: 2/18/2017 5:00:28 PM Weekly Round Table

Zulfkar: My father was with NC of Sheikh Abdullah, which was eroded by Farooq Abdullah and further done away under Omar Abdullah

Peoples Democratic Party leader and Minister for Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali was at The News Now for this week’s Newsroom Roundtable — our editorial staff’s weekly series of interaction with leaders from politics, culture, academia, media, civil services, security, academia and sports. A second generation politician who has contested three elections and won two, Chowdhary, who belongs to a family ideologically rooted in National Conference, talked about his personal and political journey into the fold of Peoples Democratic Party. In the current political scenario in Jammu and Kashmir, Chowdhary Zulfkar is uniquely placed – in 2008 he emerged as the first ever PDP member to have won an Assembly seat from Jammu region, where the party still doesn’t have a significant foothold. In a government formed after a regionally divided verdict – PDP taking lead in Kashmir and BJP in Jammu – Zulfkar is PDP’s only member from Jammu region in the Cabinet. With his political constituency being in the Chenab Valley and the cultural moorings closer to Jammu, he has the advantage of such a position to enhance understanding between both sides of political divides. Zulfkar says, “Once you get into a larger public role, it is incorrect to be projected or get identified as a leader or Minister of a particular region or community. A leader has to be a leader of the whole of Jammu and Kashmir and so has to be the Minister; that is so important to cementing the ties between regions and communities”.
Choudhary Zulfkar Ali picked three diverse faculties of learning but eventually took career in politics. A graduate from GGM Science College, he did Masters in Law, another Masters in Business Administration and also studied Journalism at the postgraduate level. “I always knew that my journey was towards politics but second best thing could have been legal practice”, he told us. Zulfkar’s father, Chowdhary Mohammad Hussain, a National Conference veteran, was a legislator from Darhal constituency in Rajouri district for six times. He remained a Minister with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and also with Dr Farooq Abdullah. Zulfkar assisted his father in his term as MLA after 1996 and took over Choudhary Hussain’s legacy after his demise in 2002. He contested his first election as an independent candidate in 2002 but lost. The same year Choudhary Hussain passed away and few months later Zulfkar joined PDP on invitation of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. When asked why did he not join his father’s party, Zulfkar said, “my father was with the National Conference of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The party saw drastic ideological erosion under Dr Farooq Abdullah. It further went down under Omar Abdullah. I saw in PDP an opportunity of being part of an inclusive political programme and decided to work for my people from this platform”.

Here are the excerpts:

AKANKSHA: Give us a glimpse of your personal journey.
ZULFKAR: I come from a political family. My father was a representative of same Darhal constituency, which I represent now, and was a Member of Legislative Assembly for six times in his political career. After his sad demise, the politician in me decided to come forward and to complete the unfinished task of my father which was to help the people of Darhal in living a better life. I remember it was from very early in life that seeing my father working for the people I also felt a strong urge to do the same and wanted to become politician one day. People used to come to my house to meet my father and seek his help and this always motivated me a lot. I also wanted to continue helping the people as well and becoming a leader was the only way I knew I could do it. So, as soon as I completed my graduation, I jumped into it. My political career started informally as I started assisting my father in 1996 which went for around six years. I also completed my Bachelors in Law and Masters in Law in that span of time. In 2002, for the first time I contested elections from Darhal as an Independent candidate but I lost. Thereafter, I joined People’s Democratic Party in the month of January. I remained the district president of People’s Democratic Party for 10 years. In year 2008, I contested from Darhal again, this time on PDP ticket. I won the mandate but PDP lost elections and we were in opposition. I won the “Best Legislator” award in 2012. Then in 2014, I again contested from Darhal, won and became Minister for Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs and Tribal Affairs in the cabinet of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed Sahab. In 2015, when Mufti Sahab passed away and his daughter Mehbooba took over as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, I was again given the same portfolio.

ANUJ SHRIVASTAVA: Your father had a long political career and he always remained with the National Conference. You assisted him also in that period, then why did you choose to join the PDP?
ZULFKAR: Ever since I started my political career my first aim has been to serve my people, to work for them. My people always come before the party. I wanted to choose a party where I could serve my people. By then PDP had become an alternative political platform to choose. Moreover, by the time I came to join politics, the National Conference had changed a lot. It was no longer the party of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah that my father was a part of. The NC has seen a lot of ideological erosion since then. First under Dr Farooq Abdullah and now under Omar Abdullah, the National Conference has constantly seen erosion of the values that it once stood for. The NC now has a big disconnect with the people. It is no longer a party that works for the poor. So, it was a choice for me then. I wanted to join a party where I could serve the people, a party that worked for the poor and I chose the PDP.

DEEPAK KHAJURIA: There has been a change in your personality in the last decade as far as your way of dressing and hairstyle are concerned, any particular reason?
ZULFKAR: (Smiles) Yes, there is little change in personality and dressing. The change has come along with the passage of time, there is no specific reason. We all have to dress up as per the occasion. When I am attending meetings with bureaucrats, attending conferences or meeting journalists as with you all right now, then I dress formally. When I go to my constituency I wear the local costume. But all this change is only from the outside. There is no change in my behaviour and I am the same Zulfkar Choudhary for my people, friends, staff and officials.

SAHIL RASGOTRA: You hold a Master’s degree in Law, Journalism and Business Management which makes me very curious to know what would you be doing if you had not become a politician?
ZULFKAR: Well, my first dream was to become a politician and I have been able to realize that. But on a second thought, if not for politics, I would have been a good lawyer.

ZAFAR CHOUDHARY: The developments of early this week in the Legislature have once again betrayed the vulnerability of your government to knee jerk reactions on the political issues. It was a difficult situation. Tell us, how stable is the Mehbooba Mufti government?
ZULFKAR: Look, whatever has happened in the Assembly is the essence of democracy. People and parties in Jammu and Kashmir have strong political positions. Our alliance is one of the most difficult and challenging arrangement which has taken up the risk of addressing those difficulties together. So, political confrontations will keep on happening until we arrive at a common ground which is good for all. It is often good to have confrontations take place. It is only then that you discuss the issues more, your began to appreciate each other’s view point and get to understand each other’s threshold level as well. Look at the recent incident, there was a brief confrontation which has triggered discussion in the society but we as alliance partners have come back to work. This is an evidence of the stability of our government and we will complete our full term in office. The Agenda of Alliance is Mufti Sahab’s great gift to the regional reconciliation and good governance. The Chief Minister is very accommodative and she is taking forward Mufti Sahab’s vision.

AKRITI JAMWAL: Your father was a six-time MLA; your two brother-in-laws are also MLA's and this is your second term as MLA as well. In the wake of accusation of dynastic politics, what is your comment?
ZULFKAR: We are all living in a democratic setup here and contrary to popular belief; dynasty has not much role to play in politics as it does in other things. It is not like that my father was a six-time MLA so my becoming an MLA became easier on its own. In Indian democracy, after every 6 years in Jammu and Kashmir and every 5 years in rest of the country, each member has to go to public and seek fresh mandate. It is only if the public approves that one is elected or re-elected. Besides, there is nothing wrong in choosing the career of one’s father or uncle. It is akin to a businessman's son also choosing to become one. No matter how successful his father was at what he did, it is ultimately the son who has to prove his mettle to survive and succeed. A politician, no matter from where he is coming, has to win people's hearts to stay in this setup. The term “parivarvaad”is wrongly coined and worse, wrongly used by our media these days. Moreover, I don't understand what is wrong in politician's children becoming politicians when an artist's son can become an artist; an IAS officer's son can join civil services and teacher's son can become a teacher, without much fuss from media. Today's public has grown mature and votes for performance rather than surnames. If families of those who have ruled the country for over 50 years are struggling for power today, who am I to benefit from dynastic politics.

AKRITI JAMWAL: The real test of Food Security and Supplies is in the time of crisis and the department's performance in such times becomes even more crucial. Having been hit by floods in 2014, then earthquakes and recently the Kashmir unrest, we are vulnerable to hazards of all sorts — natural and man-made. How much prepared are we as a state to combat such crisis?
ZULFKAR: Before coming on the level of preparedness I would like to tell you about the performance of the department during the time of crisis. In the recent Kashmir turmoil, the department supplied over 22 lakh quintals of food grains. When the entire valley was shut down, all the food shops remained open so as to maintain and regulate the food supply. When the whole state machinery had come to a standstill, only our department and our employees were out on the roads, supplying food grains. They were beaten up, became targets of stone-pelting, their vehicles were damaged but they did their duty with supreme devotion. I am grateful and thankful to my employees who have built a wonderful image of the department in such difficult times. They repeated what they did in 2014 floods when CAPD was the first department to be out, helping public. This is significant, considering CAPD supply is not as easy as say PHE department where mere opening of valves supplies water to the whole state through existing pipelines. Here, we have to bring ration, check for its quality, manage the money, and then distribute it to that child in Lakhanpur to that elderly lady in Nubra Valley. I am proud that my department has been doing it so wonderfully. Coming to how prepared we are to any crisis in future, we already have food grains stocks that would suffice for at least six months, in case of extreme crisis. To improve further, we are in talks with the Government of India for construction of Silos in the state, that would help in safe preservation and stocking up of food grains for five years. It has been already done in some states successfully. I am extremely delighted to share with you that we have already identified the sites for the construction of silos in Kathua, Samba, Jammu, Udhampur, Budgam and Anantnag. Once constructed, there will be no worries whatsoever of shortage of food grains, irrespective of the type of crisis. Though we do not have any shortage presently, construction of Silos would be a help in long term planning and crisis-management. Thus I can say with utmost certainty that we are more than just prepared for any type of crisis.

ADHIRAJ MALHAN: The municipal limits and number of ration depots have increased many times in Jammu district, but labour strength is same as it was in early 90. Is there any plan to increase labourers also as you are going to open 4000 new ration depots in state.
ZULFKAR: Yes, there is shortage of manpower in the department for distribution of ration in Jammu Municipal limits. For last many years, the government has not recruited any new labourers. The government does not wish to recruit labourers. We plan to outsource the work instead and the tender process has already started in this regard.

ADHIRAJ MALHAN: According to official data, 74 lakh people fall in PHH category, but there are allegations that people have fudged their income records to take undue benefit. Will the department physically check these ration card holders or is it government’s compulsion to add numbers under NFSA.
ZULFKAR: It is my pleasure and happiness to share with you that my department is the only one which is providing 100 per cent digital information. We gave out 1 crore 40 lakh forms in the state and have received 1 crore 38 lakh filled up forms under NFSA. Besides, we did the fidelity test. It took us one year to scrutinize the forms and 11 lakh forms were found to be fictitious. Name of some influential or elite persons in the PHH category may have been wrongly entered by the data entry operator which would be corrected as the fidelity process is still continuing. For verification, we have uploaded the entire information on the portal of the department. Anyone can check it on the portal. Even if some influential or elites are there in the list, in reality they are highly unlikely to go to ration depot and stand in queue to take ration. Had we not chosen to go by self declared information by the public, it would have taken us 5 to 8 years to verify the information individually. We incorporated self declaration attestation in the form that has to be duly signed by the ration card holder stating that the information provided is true and found and they can be prosecuted it is wrong.
Moreover, times change for all of us. May be someone who falls in NPHH may later be eligible for PHH category and someone in PHH may move to NPHH category according to change in income. We have enforced dedicated staff to check pilferage of ration at grinding mills. Again it is my pleasure to inform you that we have decided to introduce fortified Atta which includes iron, Vitamin B12 and folic acid. The tender for this is on and government will not compromise with the quality of Atta. We are providing good quality of rice the price of which in open market would not be less that Rs 30 per kg. We once returned loaded trucks to FCI store and will not compromise with the quality of foodgrain.

SUMIT SHARMA: Sir, consumers are nowadays at the receiving end due to tussle between dealers and CAPD authorities. Dealers say that their commission has been reduced to 5 per cent and further they are asked to lift ration quota from store for which they have to bear additional costs, as a result of which there is no ration for consumers. What steps are being taken at your end sir?
ZULFKAR: In Jammu municipal area, there are 147 ration depots and dealers have a monopoly here. The attitude of PDS dealers is not good. We don’t have vehicles and staff to provide ration at the shops. The department floated tenders for this thrice but we got no response. Later, we thought that like other areas where dealers lift their ration from the central store, the dealers in Jammu should also do the same. If other dealers in the state have no problem, then why are some dealers here not complying. I have given them 72 hours and have asked my director take appropriate action later. And far as their commission is concerned, it has been increased manifolds.

SUMIT SHARMA: Sir, in CAPD department TSOs have luxury vehicles while director has Maruti 800. What steps are being taken to curb corruption?
ZULFKAR: A 24x7 helpline for CAPD grievance redressal has been launched in Jammu. Earlier, only challans were submitted in department without any ration being there physically. Now, we have brought total transparency. The ration which comes from Punjab enters the state with fool proof arrangements. The display of rate list has been made mandatory at each ration depot.

S.SHEKHAR: Implementation of National Food Safety Act has deprived lakhs of people of ration in the State, especially in Jammu region. What is your take on this?
ZULFKAR ALI: I do not agree with you. Actually, the population of this state is about 1,25,42,000 and out of this, we are providing food grains to 1,19,13,000 and only 6 lakh people have been excluded. They are the affluent class of the society, which include businessmen, whose turnover is above Rs. 25 lakhs, besides, those who are on constitutional positions and all gazetted officers, those having land holdings of more than 80 kanals. Only these people have been excluded. Exactly 95 per cent population is being provided food grains by my department. There is one genuine problem and that is that the ration is being distributed on the basis of 2011 Census figures and rest of the population doesn’t fall under the coverage. If there is any hue and cry somewhere, we have tried to accommodate that but those born after 2011 are not included.

DEEPAK KHAJURIA: What is the status of Kerosene supply as we hear about its extensive black marketing?
ZULFKAR: As far as black marketing of kerosene is concerned, I am not denying that it is not there. We have brought it down a great deal and nowadays it is only about 10 per cent, because now there is no mixing of kerosene in petrol and diesel in Jammu and Kashmir. There are 90,000 LPG connections and very less number of people use kerosene now. Samba has become the first kerosene-free district in the state and more districts are likely to become kerosene-free soon. Now, the kerosene quota of J&K has been reduced by 40 per cent by Union Government, so also there is less chance of black marketing as only necessary supply is given to dealers. As far as corruption at department level is concerned, we have installed GPRS systems in tankers carrying kerosene and it has reduced pilferage by 90 per cent.

NEERAJ SHARMA: What is your plan to make the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs department cashless?
ZULFKAR: We plan to make the department cashless by installing PoS Machines at the sales counter which will be connected with bio-metric system to check pilferage of ration. The department is becoming cashless in a phased manner. In the first phase, urban areas will become cashless by June 30, 2017 and the rural areas will be covered later on and the department will become cashless in whole of the state by December, 31, 2017.

ZAFAR CHOUDHARY: You have made repeated mentions of reforms, transparency and accountability. One biggest worry is that all these measures eventually turn out to be individual initiatives and not institutional. So, when the next Minister takes over, he always talks of rot in inheritance.
ZULFKAR: That is true. I also inherited a lot of rot but I didn’t talk about it. The department of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution (or FCSCA) is one of the oldest. We have had it since early 1930s. Since it is about supply chain, the pilferages have always happened. Pilferages are sometimes because of bad system management but most of the times because of corruption. So allegations have always remained. What I have tried to do is to improve the system, so as to end the pilferages and eventually minimise the scope of corruption. So, I am handling the department with a two pronged strategy: one is not to leave any scope of pilferage and corruption as long as I am there and second is to build up system in such a way that it operates on a mechanism of accountability. I am striking at the roots to create a strong institutional framework which bears public trust.

ZAFAR CHOUDHARY: Could you tell us frankly, what is PDP’s level of comfort with BJP?
ZULFKAR: Take my word we are very comfortable with each other. In fact our experience with BJP is better than we had with Congress. I wasn’t a Minister in the PDP-Congress coalition government (2002-2008) but being close to the then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed I can say with confidence that our experience with BJP is much better than the level of comfort we had with Congress. We have to judge our partnership on the parameters of governance, which is the underlying principle of our alliance. On issues of policies and governance, our BJP colleagues are focused and committed, they are eager to do the best and get things done for their people. The best part is that our BJP colleagues are clean, cultured and committed.

DEEPAK KHAJURIA: As you are the only Cabinet Minister in PDP from Jammu region, you also have the big responsibility to make the party flourish under your guidance in Jammu region. Is the alliance with BJP creating any hurdle in this?
ZULFKAR: Our government is working on the Agenda of Alliance (AoA) and we are delivering to the people of the entire state. As far as Jammu region and increasing PDP members in the region are concerned, I don’t think it is the right time to judge the graph of the party at this moment. I think it will be seen after another couple of years. But, coalition with BJP is not creating any hurdles in this.

ADHIRAJ MALHAN: Rajouri Poonch districts have chosen their representatives from five different parties. Why so? How does it reflect on the PDP performance?
ZULFKAR: Elections are always very dynamic and people of Rajouri and Poonch districts are politically vibrant. There were many factors in the 2014 elections but among all parties, the PDP remained first in the border districts.

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