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Inclusion & imagination

One-size-fits-all policy won’t harness India’s strengths

Written by Anil K. Gupta |
June 8, 2009 12:39:35 am

The government’s hundred-day agenda,announced in parliament,has many positive features. Certainly,for the first time,India’s government put the goal of making India more entrepreneurial and innovative in its urgent priority list. The importance given to the role of women in local bodies is equally praiseworthy.

However,the irony of equity is not apparent to South Block’s mandarins. How else can one justify spreading NREGA to all the districts of the country,when the degree and nature of the problem is not uniform? There are large parts of the country where employment and income are extremely low almost ‘round the year except in the harvest season. If floods come during that period,even that small window of opportunity is lost. What planners have implied is that a uniform remedy for uneven problems works. Nothing could be farther from the truth. After all,isn’t it easy to exhaust the budget in better-endowed regions than in the economically-backward regions? If market wage rates are constantly higher than the minimum wage rates,would public intervention in the labour market still be justified? Shouldn’t the focus in such regions be more on skill-upgradation,value-addition,and better information availability?

It is in the regions with much lower wage rates that public interventions are required — and there,for longer periods. It would have been better if government focused on the 150 to 200 poorest districts and removed the infrastructural,institutional and other bottlenecks to remove the poverty for ever. (Incidentally there would also be an overlap with regions subject to Naxalite violence.) The margins of the country,be it Jammu and Kashmir or the north-east,deserve an empathetic approach. Inclusion without distributed growth will not be sustainable.

There are several models of inclusion which are praiseworthy. The idea of supporting two lakh students with five thousand rupees per month — besides twenty thousand annually for contingencies — under the INSPIRE programme is amazingly bold. Instead of focusing on centralised merit,this programme provides a new concept of decentralised merit. Different schools’ toppers will be supported; centralised merit would have concentrated resources in fewer places and institutions. This programme might succeed in bringing more girls — who outperform boys in exams — to science. But would mentoring be available at that level?

During the 23rd Shodh Yatra from Dahod to Alirajpur recently,the sight of women collecting water (to carry for miles) by making small pits in the river-bed was not uncommon. For these women,neither legislative reservation nor grandiose plans mean much. If an underground pipeline for drinking water in arid salt-making regions can be stopped on environmental grounds while at the same time over-ground pipes of various refineries can go through,there is something fundamentally flawed in the way we incorporate environmental concerns. These are not solitary cases: all over the country,patience with inertia and inefficiency in poverty-stricken regions is giving out. I thought,while on the yatra,that if the policymakers in question walked for a week in peak summer,files would move faster and policy directions would change more easily. If,despite the visits of top policy-makers to suicide-affected families in Vidarbha,agricultural technology cannot deliver simple non-monetary messages for pest control — such as growing lady’s finger around the cotton field to trap the pest or growing calotropis on the corners to attract the lady bird beetle,a predator of the pest — to those families,we must be extremely dumb or thoroughly insensitive towards the needs of sustainable low-cost agriculture.

While designing urban roads,planners rarely forget to provide parking space for cars,but usually forget to provide cycle paths. What kind of inclusion is this,in which the means of transport of so many people occupies no space in the planners’ minds? But,now,finally,there is a good chance that policy-makers will begin to listen. And that is because performance has begun to influence the popular imagination.

Inclusion requires imagination. For fertilising imagination,we need to appreciate diversity.

Uniformity of policy in a country as diverse as India is a recipe for disaster. Innovations do not come about by treating people as having mouths,legs and hands but no head. Without intellectual inclusion physical inclusion will not work. The knowledge,the ideas and the innovations of Indians in farms,firms,workshops,shopfloor and on the road side have to become the basic building block of India’s

renaissance. Otherwise history will repeat itself; much larger parliamentary majorities have been wasted in the past. Monitoring, including through people’s participation,is the only answer for generating legitimacy and accountability. India deserves decentralised,diversified and innovative policies.

The writer is at IIM,Ahmedabad express@expressindia.com

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