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Three more reforms, Dr Singh

Indian Express, 20 May 2009
By Jaithirth Rao

Dear Dr Singh: While making your first budget speech as finance minister you quoted Victor Hugo's phrase, "an idea whose time has come"; you believed that India was indeed such an idea. You should feel good that the Indian tigress who was born in the early nineties has lived up to her promise. But she is still a cub. The tigress growing into adulthood must have strength in all her limbs and muscles; so too should every part of India grow into prosperity. You who have been the proponent of "inclusive growth" know this better than anyone else. We cannot rest until we have eliminated the moral obscenity involved in the fact that a quarter of our people go to bed hungry every night or that one-third of our fellow citizens cannot read or write.

The term you are about to embark upon is your true and major rendezvous with history. It will define your legacy. No government in a five-year term can succeed in doing too many things and a government with a vision for its citizens cannot afford to get bogged down by details. It is on the broad canvas that your attention and energies need to be focused.

I commend to you just three items all of which have been discussed and debated endlessly by committees and commissions. They now need your "liberating" touch!

One, education. An insufficiently literate and under-trained people cannot be an asset for any country. We need to take steps in this field like those you initiated in the early nineties with industry. Thirty-three approvals are required for a citizen to start a school. Fifty per cent of government school teachers do not turn up for work while sending their own children to private schools. Nay-sayers will argue that education is a state subject and that you cannot do much about it. You have been able to use the JNURM to force reform in urban affairs (for example, abolition of the Urban Land Ceiling Act) by simply making it financially attractive for states. Why not tell the states that the Centre will make available funds to them if they issue vouchers to poor students which they can use to pay for education in private or government schools? You can create a body like SEBI (a success of yours in the financial sector) to regulate the schools with a transparent process.

By giving the poor parents and children of India education vouchers and hence giving them a choice, you would be doing nothing more than what you and I have done for our children and what politicians of all hues have done for their children! Private schools will prosper; government schools will improve. What you do for schools, you can extend to colleges and vocational institutions. None of this is new; it is in keeping with what the National Knowledge Commission (appointed by you) has recommended. This one step will result in a "truly educated" India in less than two decades.

Two, police and judicial reform. Here again numerous commissions have given blueprints. The political resistance has been from the states. There is no need to enter into confrontations with them; that is not your style anyway. Your government can simply announce large "modernisation" grants to those states which agree to reform and in fact modernise their police systems and their judicial processes. Our policemen and policewomen desperately need better physical facilities, networked computers, video cameras, night-vision goggles, bullet-proof vests and so on. They also need to be insulated from biased interference, irrational transfers and harassment. There are plenty of reports on how to fix the situation. All we need to do is implement them.

Similarly, we need judicial reform. Judges need better offices, better administrative support and help from independent judicial commissioners who can take (and even video-tape) witness depositions. All this can help speedier justice for the citizens of the land. If some Luddite states turn down these funds, you can rest assured that the Congress party will win hands down in those states in the next round. Incidentally, meaningful improvement of the working conditions, systems and processes in our police and judiciary will be far more helpful in improving national security than draconian laws that are always susceptible to misuse.

Three, NREGA. This columnist has repeatedly argued in these columns that the NREGA is a very worthwhile effort. By giving work and a wage to our poor rather than a dole, we treat them with dignity. By attempting (even if only with partial success) to build roads, reservoirs and schools, we create useful social capital. The criticism that the programme is wasteful often advanced by fiscal fundamentalists has no moral basis at all in a country where the middle and upper classes get huge subsidies for their LPG and diesel consumption.

On NREGA, the two points I would make are that firstly we should build on it and secondly we should leverage the Right to Information Act to engage civil society to improve the outcomes and to reduce waste and corruption. Once the current global recession ends and we are back to a 9 to 10 per cent GDP growth, you are likely to automatically reap a 20 per cent growth in government revenues. At that stage, you may consider going in for an urban version of NREGA in our small towns and big cities. Just a thought.

That's it sir. I am not asking for tax sops for my particular industry or some tinkering with reservation lists to help my neighbor. Three items only, all big picture, items unlikely to excite the stock market in the short term or to get TV channels particularly interested in. Even if you don't succeed fully, but only partially, in the history of our country you will enter a select pantheon: one can think of Sher Shah, Raja Raja Chola, Akbar, Krishnadeva, Shivaji Ranjit Singh and Nehru, and possibly Curzon - no one else comes to mind. This is one objective worth fighting for, I submit - not because you seek glory, but because you pursue the dharma of a just, wise and sagacious ruler.

Read the report on the Indian Express

 

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