While laying the foundation stone for the first-ever automated multilevel parking lot in a government building (Transport Bhawan) in the capital on Monday, Nitin Gadkari, Union minister of surface transport and highways had a confession to make: “The prime minister was interested in the project. When he asked me how it was progressing, I felt ashamed to tell him that we were not able to get clearances”. It turns out that Gadkari’s ministry had to wait for nine months just to gather all the approvals from all the different ministries required for the automated parking lot. Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu has repeatedly promised that the process of acquiring regulatory clearances will become faster, but Gadkari’s candid admission shows how far India still has to go.
This year, India completes 25 years of economic reforms, set in motion by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in the Rao government. In his historic budget speech in 1991, Singh boldly proclaimed, “Victor Hugo once said, ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’. Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake”. It wasn’t the first stab at reforms. Through the 1980s, several policies were liberalised, albeit by stealth. In 1991, India openly accepted that the so-called licence-permit raj was not the way forward for the economy. The essential promise of reforms was two-fold: One, a greater play of market forces, allowing the private sector to provide for the emerging needs of people, accompanied by the withdrawal of the state from sectors where it was not needed. Two, the simplification of rules and regulations, without which no free-market economy could prosper.
Gadkari’s revelation provides a telling snapshot of how far we have travelled — rather, failed to — on the second count. It is said that in India there is a strong consensus for weak reforms. It is time to step on the gas.