TOI Blog | May 31, 2019
Now that PM Narendra Modi and his cabinet have been sworn in, I thought of sharing some thoughts with you about what I believe should be priorities (not that my views count). In fact, I feel rather foolish attempting to outline a governance agenda that is better left to experts.
I often feel that action plans focus on the effect rather than the cause. Farmer distress is a huge issue but unless we solve the problems related to irrigation, ground water and public distribution we will never make lives of farmers easier. We talk about radical ideologies causing security concerns but unless we improve education delivery and economic prospects, we will not successfully tackle that problem. We talk of unemployment but if we do not focus on skilling and enterprise creation, that problem will persist. Hence, the effort in this article is to address the deeper causes.
I do believe that this second term could be transformational provided that the Modi government decides to remain focused on a few key areas to deliver results. So here is my common-sense 10 point agenda. I call it a "Back-to-basics Wish List" drafted with my zero-expertise on anything (and in no particular order).
1. Law, order, justice: The internal security of India depends on a strong, modern and responsive police force to implement the law as also an effective judiciary where justice is neither delayed nor denied. In addition, the prison system needs a revamp so that it does not become a breeding ground for criminals and terrorists. We need the process of old and redundant laws weeded out from the statutes to continue. We need modernisation of the police force in addition to better information gathering and analysis. The huge backlog of cases at various levels of the judiciary need speedy disposal and innovative methods need to be applied to reduce pendency of cases. There is no reason why government should be a litigant in so many cases nor is there any reason why judges and courts should stick to antiquated vacations. The government and judiciary need to sit together and figure out how to fill judicial vacancies. Given that many of India’s states are under BJP rule, this is the time to ensure centre-state coordination in order to achieve the desired outcomes in police reform.
2. Water: 18% of the world’s population resides in India but India only has 4% of the world’s usable water resources. It is predicted that around 20 cities in India, including Delhi, will run out of ground water by 2020. 70% of the country’s water supply is contaminated. According to the World Bank, 21% of communicable diseases in India are due to unsafe water. Creative and reasonable solutions such as rainwater harvesting, enhancing local storage, reservoirs, water sharing, rehabilitating rivers, lakes and ponds and looking at saltwater purification plants for megacities is crucial.
3. Food: As per the Global Hunger Index, India ranks 103 out of 118 countries. This is surprising when one considers the fact that India is home to the world’s highest percentage of arable land and ranks first in gross irrigated farmland. India seemingly produces enough food, not only to feed its population but also to export. So why should millions live without two square meals a day? Food needs to be looked at from multiple angles—public distribution, transport, warehousing, buffering, crop planning, irrigation, soil management and food processing. By 2030, India will be home to 1.6 billion people. Feeding them has to be one of our biggest priorities.
4. Health & Sanitation: India is grappling with both infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases, now accounting for over half of all deaths. China spends 5.6 times and the US spends 125 times per capita than India on health. Our health infrastructure, both urban and rural, is creaking. Our hospitals are understaffed and under-financed. Currently Indians meet 62% of their healthcare costs through personal resources, a scary number. While India has adequate physicians, more than two-thirds cater to just a third of the population, mostly those in urban centres. The launch by PM Modi of the Ayushman Bharat-National Health Protection Scheme is a step in the right direction because it will provide around 50 crore people with a Rs. 5 lakh cover per family. This is a brilliant scheme but will eventually face bottlenecks in terms of delivery of services. There is a shortage of public hospitals while private hospitals do not find it remunerative to provide services under the plan. Poor sanitation has been a huge culprit in the spread of diseases and the government has constructed 86 million toilets since 2014, reducing the number of persons who openly defecate from 550 million to fewer than 150 million. This process needs to continue at a rapid pace while maintaining strict quality and delivery standards.
5. Climate & Environment: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that India, currently the fourth highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, will be among the countries affected the worst by climate change. Keep in mind that agricultural incomes will reduce owing to lower rainfall, increasing temperatures and increased flood risk. Coastal urban centres seem to be clueless about coping with increasing water levels. Pollution, global warming, climate change, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, deforestation, ocean acidification, reduction of biodiversity, desertification and increasing ocean temperatures are issues that must remain among the highest areas of concern for us. What is the use of a flourishing urban centre if school children cannot go to school on account of noxious air quality? India should be at the forefront of alternative energy development and should benchmark itself to China.
6. Education: The Annual Status of Education Report finds that 86% of Indian adolescents are enrolled in the education system but only 53% of can read a simple text and only 44% can perform arithmetical division. Primary education is in disarray. We may pride ourselves on our IITs and IIMs but we still do not have globally ranked institutes of higher learning. A drastic overhaul is needed and possibly technology could play a vital role in that transformation. Having said that, there is no substitute for government spending while encouraging private sector institutes of excellence. We also need to stop producing graduates that are unemployable and focus on vocational training that creates skilled manpower. Extremist ideologies are a cause for worry around the world and a focus on reforming primary education could significantly check that. Remember, one can kill terrorists but not the ideology that spawned them.
7. Defence: Just look at our neighbourhood as well as within our borders and you will observe the immense challenges that we face. Pakistan’s support for terror proxies and continued meddling in Kashmir; China’s efforts to checkmate India in the neighbourhood; the challenges of radical and extremist ideologies within and outside India... the list is endless. India needs to upgrade and modernise its armed forces, build better-managed and stronger borders, create effective intelligence networks and build better global alliances that are pragmatic rather than idealistic. Even within India, naxal-dominated or terror-infested areas need closer monitoring because those have the potential to cause implosions rather than explosions. Just to put things in perspective: this year China increased its defence budget to USD 177.61 billion, a little over three times India's defence budget.
8. Demographics: We need to find a way to discourage population growth. It's a touchy topic after the emergency years but I believe it needs to be discussed. People talk of India’s demographic dividend, but I cannot see it. If we do not focus on this issue, we may have a demographic disaster rather than dividend. Gender imbalances in some regions are indicative of socially regressive customs that need to be checked. Possibly we need to incentivise the girl child? Government policy must focus on creating a level playing field across gender, economic strata, caste and religion. True secularism must mean a hands-off approach. Why do temples need to be regulated by government committees for instance? Isn't it time for reservation policies to be revisited even if they are to be continued? Shouldn't women be protected by a common civil code irrespective of faith?
9. Livelihood: I do not like the words “employment” and "unemployment". They seem to suggest that the unemployment register is a barometer of how badly our economy is doing. What is it that we really want? Frankly what we need is livelihood for millions of Indians so that they may improve their lot. A large chunk of Indians are agriculturists, informal workers or self-employed. We need to increase the opportunities available to earn a decent livelihood. How can we achieve that? On the one hand, we need to improve skilling and training of individuals. On the other, we need to allow private enterprise to explode. If we cannot make it far easier to do business in India in matters of taxation, bureaucracy interface, labour regulation, corruption, bank finance, infrastructure, land regulations and policy transparency, we will never be able to attain an economic growth rate that can pull millions out of poverty. We also need far better data on employment. PM Modi had talked about "minimum government, maximum governance", it is time to walk that talk. Successive governments have said that "the government has no business being in business" so why shouldn't disinvestment be accelerated? India is the world’s third largest economy on PPP basis but ranks only 60th out of 148 countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global Competitiveness Index. There is thus a huge potential for improvement.
10. Urbanisation and Infrastructure: More than a third of Indians live in cities and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more than 900 million Indians in urban centres. Our municipalities are woefully ill-equipped to deal with urban planning or infrastructure development or even ordinary issues such as garbage disposal and water supply. Connectivity by road, rail, air and water is critical for economic benefits to be dispersed. Power availability and internet connectivity can also be key drivers of economic progress. Many initiatives taken in the first term of PM Narendra Modi have been on the right track—rural electrification, daily targets for road building and railway modernisation but yeh dil maange more.
I am woefully unqualified to present an agenda for governance but I do believe that some of these points could possibly pave the way for a more comprehensive action plan rather than the usual media discourse on non-issues.