Opinion: Promises to Keep and Miles to Go
Highlights of President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the Joint Session of Parliament on June 9 :
The Modi sarkar used the President’s address to the joint sitting of Parliament to lay not just its agenda, but more importantly to demonstrate its commitment to the implementation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's mantra of Skill, Scale and Speed.
India cannot abolish poverty and become a prosperous country if its youth is not skilled to take up jobs in manufacturing. This initiative alone would liberate them from the scourge of unemployment. Reducing the gap between formal education and skill development has rightly been identified as the way to go about it. The road map outlined in the speech is extremely comprehensive and ambitious. To some it may appear unrealistic, but the history of development has shown that without bold dreams, countries and societies are condemned to stagnate.
This ambitious agenda revolves around 5Ts, i.e., tradition, talent, trade, tourism, technology. Whether it is 100 e-smart cities, IITs & IIMs in every state, affordable and accessible health coverage, transparent disposal of natural resources, development of global platform for defence-related design and production by facilitating technology transfer through FDI, role of domestic and foreign private sector in science & technology, the agenda has outlined comprehensive vision and tremendous courage. And by asking to be judged in 60 months on its ability to deliver on its ambitious agenda, the Modi government has put the premium on speed of decision-making and implementation.
The government has already started moving with commendable speed to try and achieve ‘minimum government, maximum governance’; and, now the pressure on bureaucracy at the top, to both cut the red tape and improve the physical environment of central ministries will have to be pursued relentlessly. There is however the need to guard against creating too many new national commissions/ agencies/authorities, tempting as it looks for the same.
Infact the focus should be to strengthen existing institutions, modifying their mandates where necessary and doing away those which have become redundant.
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Modi sarkar has come to power based on the twin goals of development and good governance. These two are closely related, and it was the UPA’s complete failure on the governance front, where institutions were wilfully destroyed at the altar of populism and cynicism that led to the economic malaise the country has found itself in (Though economic issues were dominant in the President’s address, there was no hint of opportunistic populism in the agenda outlined ). Policy paralysis was a symptom of the dominant ideology of UPA that distrusted economic growth as that would liberate the poor. Consequently entrepreneurship was frowned upon & environmental issues were used to stall projects while at the same time, there was large-scale corruption in the disposal of natural resources like spectrum, coal and minerals.
Instead of equipping the poor and the disadvantaged with skills, and good health, as is now being prioritised, the UPA preferred freebies that were neither fiscally responsible nor created sustainable employment opportunities.
The need to promote manufacturing across the country has never been more pressing, and the President’s speech revolved around this. To do so, while developing skill is very important, tax regimes have to be simplified and made non-adversarial. India needs a Goods and Services Tax (GST) but that can only happen if the concerns of the states are taken on board. The false dichotomy between environmental protection and growth cannot be allowed to continue. The President has said that, clearances have to be made transparent & timely, coupled with strict compliance. The infrastructure deficit has to be made good after years of neglect, and cannot be a one-off activity.
The Diamond Quadrilateral for railways is long overdue and the entire process of upgradation and modernisation of railways would need innovative financing methods. Fifty years after Japan's bullet trains, we are still chugging along sedately. Development of low-cost air connectivity across the country would be a big spur for dispersed economic development. Manufacturing cannot take-off, as has happened in China, unless trade promotion is given attention to. Sagar Mala would have to become a reality with new ports, and complimentary links with railways, roads and inland waterways. National Maritime Authority, announced in the address, involving the States would have to move strongly to deliver so that manufacturing and trade can develop synergies and help India became a major economic force that it was till colonialism ‘de-industrialised’ our country.
For far too long, India’s political class saw cities as ‘necessary evils’, required to mop up resources but where no effort was made to promote their growth in a comprehensive manner as they were seen to be politically insignificant. This approach was bad for growth as it did not seek to take advantages of economies of scale and became a barrier in improving the quality of life. The government has rightly said that urbanisation should be seen as an opportunity and not a problem.
Urbanisation creates jobs both in manufacturing and in services, and makes delivery of social services like education, health-care, electricity, water, sewage systems etc. more efficient and effective. Government’s announcement on a whole host of quality of life issues is timely as our cities are on the verge of collapse under the weight of accumulated garbage and poor disposal of sewage. In fact, by stating that the quality of life of rural India has to improve, the other false dichotomy between urban and rural India has been laid to rest.
The development of one cannot be at the cost of the other. Agriculture needs huge productivity increases from use of technology, better water practices and value addition. And cannot remain confined to cereals, and must be extended to pulses, fruits & vegetable, dairy, poultry and fish-farming. This would naturally free lakhs of labour employed sub-optimally in agriculture and allied activity. Further increased productivity would generate surpluses that would promote better quality of life in our villages.
Women’s empowerment and zero tolerance for crimes against women, as announced, must be operationalised since recent unfortunate events have shown how far we have to go. Reservation of women in parliament and state assemblies has been hanging for long, and must be followed through. The politics of treating minorities as mere vote banks while actually denying them the fruits of development have to end. Each individual, irrespective of her/his religion has the right to become an equal partner in India’s growth. The government’s approach for the modernisation of madrassas while enabling improved access of minorities to higher and technical education is necessary to show that Ek Bharat, Shrestha Bharat is not just a slogan.
The importance of maintaining and supporting our cultural heritage, be it our languages, historical monuments, the river Ganga or Himalayan ecology, cannot be underestimated. The schemes announced if implemented effectively would help facilitate cross-cultural exchanges and help us make full use of our tourism potential, besides upholding our rich and varied heritage
India cannot exist in isolation, and must maintain good relations with its neighbourhood, and the rest of the world. The invitation to SAARC, and Mauritius, heads of government to attend the swearing in was a good beginning. We need each other but good relations can only be built when there is trust, and issues like cross-border terrorism are mutually fought to establish peace. Defence preparedness in its totality is a key component of this.
The decision to prioritise welfare of ex-servicemen would be a humble tribute from the nation to those who sacrifice so much for the motherland. Relations with China, Japan, the US and Europe are important; as is with South East Asia, which seems to have slipped from the address.
The country’s expectations from Modi sarkar are sky high, even scary. Its agenda is equally bold and comprehensive. If Modi sarkar is able to involve the people sustainably, then the bold ambitions can become a reality. India deserves no less.