In my last article, ‘100 day challenge’ (IE, June 16), I suggested actions that could restore investor confidence and boost industrial and economic growth. Of course, economic growth is only an instrument for improving well being. For that, the government needs to take measures to provide electricity, clean water, fuel and air, effective and affordable healthcare, quality education and skills, connectivity through roads and internet and quick and inexpensive justice. Only when these are attained can the aspirations of the people for “achhe din” be considered fulfilled. It is a five- or 10-year agenda, but measures taken in the first 100 days can create confidence. Some are as follows:
One, initiate a National Jyotigram Yojana for 24/7 power supply. Power round the clock at stable voltage can stimulate productive activities in rural areas to generate employment. As the share of agricultural GDP has come down to around 15 per cent, substantial employment in rural areas needs to be generated in non-farm activities. Gujarat provided 24/7 electricity to its 18,000- plus villages in two and a half years. The UPA’s Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana has yet to match that after 10 years. The government should ensure that, at least in BJP-run states, 24/7 power becomes a reality by December 2016. The advantage of 24/7 power goes to households, too. In Gujarat, some households with LPG cylinders prefer to use induction cookers because it is convenient and less expensive. Considering the need to provide clean cooking fuels to protect against the adverse impact of indoor air pollution resulting from cooking with fuelwood and dung cakes and the difficulty of delivering LPG to all households on a regular basis, this is an attractive option.
Two, action must be taken to clean up the Ganga. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to clean up the river. In 2008, I had reviewed the Ganga Action Plan launched in 1984 for the Supreme Court. After nearly 25 years, the Ganga is more polluted in terms of the coliform count. Many cities had sewage treatment plants of inadequate capacities because they were delayed and populations were larger than projected. Just about half the collected sewage was treated, and large sections of population were not connected to the sewerage system. Some were not properly maintained for want of funds.
If the Ganga, or any river, has to be cleaned up, these issues have to be taken care of. Ensure that everyone is connected to the sewerage system, that sewage treatment plants of adequate capacity, keeping in
mind likely population growth, are built in time, adequate resources are provided to operate and maintain them by imposing an appropriate sewage treatment charge, effluent standards are strictly enforced on all industrial units discharging effluents in the river, open defecation is eliminated, and farmers use fertilisers and pesticides in ways that minimise contamination of runoff. This is a huge task and the cost may seem large, but compared to the costs on public health, it is small. A determined government can accomplish much of it in five years, if it begins in earnest as soon as possible.
Three, air quality in cities must be improved. The World Health Organisation has labelled Delhi one of the most polluted cities in the world. The adverse impact on health calls for action to improve air quality in our cities. The major contributor to air pollution is motorised vehicles, particularly diesel ones, the share of which is increasing due to diesel subsidy. Car ownership is increasing at a rapid pace and will accelerate with faster growth. A major step that needs to be taken is implementing Euro VI standards on automobile emissions by 2020. Currently, we are almost a decade behind European standards. The automobile industry will point to higher costs but owners should bear that cost, and not the average citizen through dirty air. The government should announce a roadmap to clean up our air.
Four, ensure equality of opportunity through quality education. Free compulsory education for eight years has no meaning if it is not quality education. A major problem is teacher absenteeism. To correct this, teachers should be made accountable to a local education committee consisting of parents and panchayat representatives. The committee should have a major say in a teacher’s transfer, salary and promotions. Also, with 24/7 electricity and internet connectivity, computerised instruction can be used to improve the effectiveness of teaching.
A three-year-old from a socially disadvantaged family has a far smaller vocabulary and lower cognitive development than a child of professional parents. This disadvantage persists. To overcome this, anganwadis have to be made places of learning and excitement. Again, programmes like Sesame Street in the US or Gali Gali Sim Sim, its Indian version, are found to be effective in overcoming some of this disadvantage. We need to develop new tools and programmes that can make anganwadis places where disadvantages in vocabulary and cognitive development can be overcome.
Five, there must be quick and affordable justice for all. Judicial delays are a major contributor to corruption and poor governance. Judicial reforms are vital to make justice quick and inexpensive. Only then can all Indians feel they live in a just society. A committee on how to make justice quick and inexpensive should be instituted and made to give recommendations in six months.
Six, promote agricultural growth to contain inflation. Gujarat has had nearly 10 per cent growth in agricultural GDP for a decade. This has been ascribed to the use of GM cotton, the diversification of cash crops made feasible by roads that connect farmers to organised markets, the soil health-card scheme and to a large number of check dams and groundwater recharge schemes. This can be replicated in many parts of the country. Increasing agricultural output is critical to containing food price inflation, which has been a major contributor to the consumer price index over recent years. Increase in the production of fruits and vegetables, reducing wastage, improving their distribution so that farmers get a higher price and consumers pay a lower price, are all possible by reforming the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act.
The government will find it easier to take tough decisions in the first 100 days. Many policy decisions show positive impact after two or three years. If decisions are taken now, the government can reap political rewards in time for the next election. There is also the danger that, with its comfortable majority, the government may feel complacent and postpone tough decisions, which never get taken. This happened to Indira Gandhi after the 1971 election and to Rajiv Gandhi after the 1984 election. The Modi government should hit the ground running and take action in all these areas.
The writer is chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) and former member, Planning Commission