A charter for Independence Day
There is a slew of amiss things to set right for ‘Ease of Living’ in India
Perchance I was the Prime Minister of India or failing in that ambitious aim, I was entrusted with the responsibility of conceptualising the speech of the Prime Minister of India this Independence Day, what should it have been?
Let us begin with a negative list. For a long time now, since 1991-92, we have been talking as a nation, too much about reforms - economic reforms. Remember the last one or one before that speech of the Prime Minister from Red Fort ramparts: it spoke of the much vaunted 'Make In India', or bank accounts for all.
What happened to Make in India? It appears that it is still hanging in the air, without India making much. If anything, we are getting more of electric kettles, hair dryers, light bulbs, and allied machinery from China. Even common umbrellas are now coming in from across the Himalayas to protect us from rain and the sun. And during the good times, Diwali lights are now apparently a monopoly of Chinese manufacturers.
Then remember the last two pieces of economic reforms. One turned out to be a disaster and the other disruptive. Demonetisation, announced as it was one evening, took the nation by surprise. As criticism, many had pointed out that even the then Governor of RBI and senior officials in the Finance Ministry, and even the Union Finance Minister did not have an inkling of it. As if, the measure should have been announced one month before the effective date and allowed everyone to manage their affairs well in time. But then, it was meant to be sudden and it did a thorough job.
In the immediate aftermath of that piece of reform, nobody actually knew what to do and how it had hit. But for whom it was meant, those were hardly naïve enough to hold large value cash. For those to whom it was not meant, the common man, it was a thorough nuisance – getting into the banks and exchanging old notes. It wasn't, as they say, worth a dime.
And to those for whom all governments shed their crocodile tears all the time, the really poor and casual workers in the informal sectors, it meant being left without any jobs for some time. Most small and tiny units had to shut their shutters down for a while and workers had to migrate to their native villages.
As for the midnight session and introduction of second freedom for the country, GST is still creating hurdles of adjustment. The ill-devised implementation had proved to be a no-brainer and its fine-tuning is still, apparently, being done. Requirements of innumerable returns at the shortest possible cycles for even the smallest businesses had set in a disruption motion, that is yet to be over.
So a Prime Minister's speech should not remind any of these bad memories by even remotely giving references to reforms. The exports of joy that even senior ministers went over India gaining notches in the World Bank's 'Ease of Doing Business' report card should give way to something else. And no oblique references to be made to resemble the India Shining claim. Instead, let us have a speech talking of 'Ease of Living' in India.
Consider what a picture of the experience of living in India. Women are unsafe anywhere in the country, while people chant "Bharat Mata ki Jai". Mob lynching is the order of the day for anything from rumours of child-lifting to transportation of cow.
The Supreme Court had to warn and tell the government to ensure law and order. It is as if all these incidents are a responsibility of the Government at the Centre when the states are simply sleeping. At this rate, we should announce on Independence Day the creation of a unitary state than a federation to have an identifiable agency for holding it to book for flagrant lapses in maintaining law and order.
The Prime Minister should then tell us on Independence Day that his government is adopting just a Five-Point Programme (FPP) for ensuring Ease of Living in India (ELI) for the common man, where the first minimalist point is to fully protect the citizens from hooligans of political parties to local mafias by entrusting law and order to every district administration. The backbone for a nationwide network of district magistrates into a grid already exists, which can be used for this purpose, holding that authorities are responsible for any infringement. Law and order should be the first priority throughout the country.
The next issue to tackle should be to reach safe drinking water to every home, not just to villages by setting up a water management machinery throughout the country. Reports indicate that we are running dry of even underground water and water tables are falling disastrously fast in parts of India, including wide swaths of north India. The matter would gain greater urgency as climate change is upon us and its manifestations could be seen across the world. An entire province in Australia is drought-affected and Europe is getting baked under a heat wave. Wildfires in California have reached proportions never experienced before. The monsoon has so far protected us from such catastrophes. But we must be careful.
Health should be next on the agenda and the government must ensure that healthcare should be available to all citizens, irrespective of their means. The skyrocketing price of private healthcare is driving even the middle class from getting quality care from reliable doctors and establishments, let alone the poor. Health costs as a matter of act can drive a relatively comfortable middle-class family into poverty, given the current prices. The conflict between costs and required care needs to be resolved for the population as a whole. Talk seriously about that, Mr Prime Minister.
Farms and farmers cannot be ignored. They are committing suicide, which has become so sadly an annual litany. All that has been done in response is to waive farm loans, to be followed by next round of self-sacrifice. So something is endemically wrong. Government is announcing higher MSPs every year, but had these been really implemented it is difficult to see why suicides should have recurred. There are restrictions on farmers' freedom, which are made merry of by others. A farmer cannot send his produce outside his state, even if there is a local glut.
Additionally, there is not enough of agro-infrastructure for storage and transportation. So, the government should first give direct benefit transfer to farmers when prices are below minimum selling prices straight into their bank accounts, now that claims have been established about their accounts with banks. Secondly, all the restrictions on farmers' freedom should be removed.
Last but not least, as it is often said, is education. Education is a cure-all for most social ills from overpopulation to development. Make women literate and the population will stabilise at a lower level than the present, which is one of the critical achievements we should aim for. The twenty-first century is a knowledge-driven one. India's position in that will be driven by the original contributions to knowledge that we generate.
Unfortunately, I am not the PM, not even a speechwriter for him.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)