There has been a surfeit of articles giving ideas to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on how to renew and revive India. I have read them with care and found that one simple theme that is close to his heart is not getting much attention. It is the concept of unclogging India. I list 10 ideas to unclog different parts of our nation in increasing order of difficulty. Here is my list.
First, a serious attempt should be made to unclog our jails. Even though jails are a state subject, the BJP could lead with jails in the states that it runs. Currently, the government spends about Rs 3,500 crore on jails housing some 3,80,000 inmates, about 60,000 more than the capacity of the jails. More than 60 per cent of the inmates are under trial. Many of them have been picked up for no apparent reason and have often served even more than the full term of the sentence they would have received had they been convicted for the crime for which they had been booked.
Many are street kids. This is not alright in a just India. In 2005, there was a proposal to amend Section 436A of the Criminal Procedure Code to free undertrials who had served 50 per cent of the term they had been charged with, but to no avail. Implementing this proposal would be a great start.
Second, our ability to provide justice in India requires quick adjudication.
Cases in our courts take too long. There is, of course, the need to create more courts and appoint more judges. But can we begin by applying Peter Drucker’s famous line, “whatever gets measured improves”, to our courts? Can we get all high courts and the Supreme Court to share some statistics in Parliament publicly? Simple statistics, like how many cases they adjudicate each year, how much time, on average, a case takes to reach a judgment. We can go farther and seek an inventory of cases at the start of the year, the number of cases added each year, the number closed and the end-of-year statistic. We could also separate cases into issue-based categories and track their progress by court. The nation needs to know how efficient our courts are.
Third, we need to broaden our tax base, introduce the goods and services tax and simplify our direct taxes, but we should also consider cleaning up the number of tax cases under litigation. A few simple steps could be taken. First, the department could conduct an assessment of past collections from litigated tax cases. What was the number of cases they were successful in and what was their collection percentage, on average, using a simple segmentation of cases? Could the tax department offer the past collection rate as a one-time offer to pending cases by segment to bring them to rapid closure? The other simple suggestion for both courts and the tax department would be to find out how many cases there are between different government departments or between state-owned enterprises under tax litigation, and see if they can be sorted through arbitration.
Fourth, with emails having become prevalent, we need to ensure that all government files shift to email. Only one copy of the final order and the noting should be stored in paper. Indeed, even this can be digitised and stored electronically. The speed of file movement will change if they move by email rather than paper.
Fifth, cut the multiplicity of identifiers and allow Indians to have a single unique identifier. Avoid getting in tangled in a needless controversy over Aadhaar. Given that 680 million Aadhaar numbers have already been distributed, the government should build on this system, correct it, but not lose it. The number of things it can simplify has often been discussed and cannot be underestimated. Let us move forward and not back.
Sixth, unlock the full potential of Indian banking — corporatise public sector banks, reduce government holding to below 50 per cent but retain the government as the single largest owner. This one act will give the public sector banks autonomy and the ability to compete with freedom. It will make ours the most stable banking system in the world, with private, foreign and listed government-controlled banks serving the national interest.
Seventh, unclog the hospitals. For a country that earns a lot of money through information technology, India has been slow to go digital in core social sectors. We need to strengthen primary healthcare with technology. We need to allow patients to be treated for basic ills remotely and use the services of good midwifes. Technologies like Skype and FaceTime will allow doctors to talk to patients and see them remotely. With the help of a midwife or nurse, this can take care of basic issues.
Eighth, mend state schools. There are 8,00,000 or so primary schools in India. As in healthcare, digital remedies could be used to fix the bottom. Create 22 regional education centres by language, connect schools, provide them with TVs, beam lessons in and create a call-centre operated by teachers who can answer questions. The current teachers could act as tutors. This is not a solution for the best schools but the bottom may improve.
Ninth, unclog our cities. As the prime minister noted in one of his early speeches in Varanasi, Indian cities are filthy. We must strive to create a movement to clean them. This has many dimensions and will take time But three major areas cannot be avoided anymore: first, build cheap and clean public toilets, especially close to slums — experiments like Sulabh Shauchalaya should be expanded and used in all slum developments. Second, well-constructed waste sites close to the top 20 cities in India are critical and existing ones need to be upgraded. Finally, a full revamp of our sewage systems is long overdue. Without this, real progress will be impeded.
Tenth, digitising land records would be a major advance for India. It would take one of the most litigious assets and create a clear basis for ownership. This will be a slow-moving project but we must start somewhere to set things right.
Imagine such an “accha” India.
The writer is chairman, Asia Pacific, The Boston Consulting Group, India. Views are personal