Focus on ‘achchhe din’ rather than just reform

Pain of policy shifts must be made part of defined future benefits

mukul

Mukul Sanwal | July 10, 2014



The prime minister’s blog entries on completion of first month in power, the foundation course for MPs and the railway budget have all been a lost opportunity to begin a national debate on our longer term future to build public opinion that will enable long term investments and ensure implementation, an area where we have failed many times in the past.

Decisions have so far focused on known problems, committees have been abolished, states are acknowledged as equal partners, the balance between welfare and commercialism is changing and we have a ‘hands-on’ PM. This only removes the anomalies of the past and does not amount to the ‘achchhe din’ the nation has been waiting for.

The partial withdrawal of the rail fare hike has an important lesson for governance. It is not enough to warn the nation that reform will involve ‘pain’, because while most will acknowledge the former few will support the later assertion. What if the railway minister had explained why we need high speed trains for future passenger and freight movement and that improved signalling enables trains to run on time?

The underlying issue here is not the ‘intricacies of the central government’ and ‘intentions’, as that is not in doubt. The issue is the difference between a chief minister and the prime minister. Peter Drucker, the management guru, perceptively pointed out that there is no difference between one organization and another, the real difference is between big and small organizations. Should the PMO focus on urgent matters, like public grievances, or on important issues where trade-offs are required, like coal plants generating less than half their installed capacity and the complexity of distribution of electricity?

The meeting of the PM with the secretaries also focused on processes of interaction and decision-making, that is, the structures and behaviour of governance, with very good results. The need for strategic direction came up later in the interaction between the secretaries and the cabinet secretary.

Clearing pending matters of the states is important for confidence building; they must also be given leadership, with full support from the central government, in pushing education, employment creation and land acquisition.

It is easy for the ministers to talk to one another to remove bottlenecks, but the centre and the states also need to work together to integrate initiatives like establishing 100 new cities, linking of rivers and making the country a manufacturing hub through a composite vision.

The challenge for the PM is to craft a compelling vision that includes local visions of the states to make it a collective vision. Decision making on approvals, public-private partnerships, market development and regulation and involvement of the states will then conform to this national vision. A strategic direction is essential for ensuring coherence, time-bound implementation and defined results to secure public support.

We have reached a stage of development where “inclusive growth” should be defined in terms of the “Indian dream” of moving into the middle class. It can then be argued that the vast funds spent on subsidies really keep the poor in villages and slums, whereas shifting allocations to infrastructure, urban design and employment generation will benefit them much more over the next five years. It must be put to farmers that land use change is an essential element of economic growth to enable movement of rural population to urban areas and non-agricultural employment, as three-quarters of future growth will come from cities.

The existing push for more electricity, high speed rail, expressways and e-governance will also need to be projected as sources of growth and precondition for giving every citizen a greater chance of prosperity.

An agreed vision is also necessary for reviewing labour laws and rules to conform to new objectives. Another example is the Civil Services Performance Standard and Accountability Bill, Code of Ethics for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Public Servants, being drafted by the department of personnel and training for some time now.

The National Development Council must come out with a bold vision for the nation and, most important, how it will be achieved, as foreign investment depends on it. Few will disagree with the assertion that three-quarters of the population should move into cities, and the middle class, by 2050; the West achieved this in the 1970s and China will do so around 2030. The debate will be on the strategies, priorities and instruments, and that is where the PM must focus his energy.

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