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IF government advertisements are to be believed, we have never had it so good. Burgeoning forex reserves of over $110 billion, an annual GDP growth exceeding eight per cent, a booming IT sector, rising consumer demand, tax cuts and cheaper loans for housing and cars – suddenly India is shining. Even better, we not only seem to be moving towards a ‘normalisations’ of relations with our western neighbour, even the Indian cricket team has performed spectacularly in Pakistan, registering the first ever series win in both the tests the limited overs contest, in the process bagging both the game and hearts.

Contrast this with the situation and the national mood a few years back, in fact the first half of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s third term in office. Barely had we recovered from the Kargil fiasco when Gujarat experienced two disasters – the ‘natural’ earthquake devastating large parts of Kutch and Saurashtra and the ‘man-made’ pogrom consuming nearly 2000 members of the minority community. War with Pakistan seemed imminent, the social fabric appeared close to rupture and drought stalked large parts of the country. The NDA regime could do nothing right with many cabinet ministers trapped in scams and allegations of corruption. And the PM, for many the cementing force of the coalition, was keeping indifferent health.

There is little doubt that this is a different India. With over half the population under 30, many impatient and restless, there are few takers for the earlier shibboleths – a harking for the glories of the ‘freedom’ struggle, an all-powerful state intervening in all sectors of life and livelihood to ensure national integrity. Some of these are reflections of long term trends forcing changes in structures, rules, values and policies. Others, however, are a fallout of induced shifts in internal and external environment, more specifically the post 1990 policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization. And central to this are reflections on the economy – the growth of private enterprise, consumerism, the shift in focus from the search for jobs and security to opportunity and enterprise.

Not surprisingly, claims on performance have become central to the electoral process. In fact, never before have we witnessed such intense debate on economic performance indicators, the material scaffolding undergirding the perception of national mood. After the garibi hatao debate of the early seventies, this is a rare situation of economists and statisticians occupying centrestage, the contending parties and alliances putting forward contrasting claims.

Sifting out ‘reality’ from ‘rhetoric’ is rarely easy. How many of us, after all, are familiar with the intricacies of data, statistical methods and sampling design. The situation gets further confounded because of bitter disputes over the sources of data, its authenticity and so on, as also, unfortunately, the ideological orientation and party political affiliations of different experts. Recollect the fractious debate over the change in methodology by the NSS in computing poverty figures. Equally debatable are the assumptions linking economic performance indicators to people’s mood.

Nevertheless, as The Economist, the liberal economic weekly unapologetic about its policy bias in favour of greater privatization and globalization points out that much of the present buoyant optimism is overdone, or at least, based on hope rather than achievement. Equally, it stresses that India was not in quite such a mess a year ago as the pessimists feared.

Take, for instance, the claims of breaking through the 8% GDP growth barrier. Not only does one swallow not make a summer, the current growth rate appears high primarily because of good agricultural growth drawing on an excellent monsoon following years of successive drought. And while industrial demand has picked up, manufacturing growth rates remain low, constrained by both infrastructure and regulatory bottlenecks. Even the ‘spectacular’ performance of the services sector remains inordinately dependant on IT.

The greater apprehension, particularly in a globalized economy, relates to our ability to weather international shifts in demand and access to markets. True, the policy on economic reforms so far has been cautious, helping us avert the currency meltdown crisis which affected large parts of East and Southeast Asia in 1998. But with proper safeguards still to be institutionalised, there is little confidence that our banking and financial system can cope with the shocks of an open economy. Not many have forgotten the numerous stock market scams, the collapse of cooperative banks or that of the UTI.

Even more troubling is the situation on the labour and employment front. It is symptomatic that on this count the shining India claims are more promise about what the NDA, if voted back into power, will do than past performance. The largest employer, agriculture, has not fared well; organised manufacturing is experiencing structural transformation and even where growing, is doing so without adding jobs. Employment growth in services involves only those with formal skills and education and the informal/unorganised sector jobs, the mainstay of the less well off, offer little by way of quality of earnings and security. With public, including government, sector jobs on the decline, we are experiencing jobless growth.

The situation regarding equity – regional, sectoral, interpersonal and intercommunity – has by all criteria worsened. When read in conjunction with the decline in public services – health, education, the PDS – the poorer strata, particularly those belonging to marginal communities and in marginal regions, come across as trapped in a ‘survival’ syndrome. And though there is some concern over the ballooning fiscal deficit, the deplorable situation of state and local body finances is insufficiently appreciated, dangerous since most activities which directly affect us lie in the domain of the provinces. No wonder, the deputy prime minister on his Bharat Uday Yatra was often forced to admit that the ‘shine’ dulls outside the metropoles.

The argument is not that nothing has changed, nor that successive regimes have got little right. The apprehension is that the succession of bloated claims, understandable in an election year, may be distracting attention from structural challenges that demand a creative and consistent response if India is to truly shine. No nation can for long survive with a fragile pride about either its great historical past or an enhanced reputation in the international comity based on an entry into the nuclear weapon states club. It has to ensure, not for a minority but for all, acceptable standards of human development and security.

How can, for instance, we countenance a situation of endemic and widespread malnutrition alongside a glut of foodgrains in the official warehouses. Sophistry about poverty figures (whether declining or not and at what rate) cannot hide the absence of public works programmes using the surplus foodgrain. The growth in sectarian and militant violence, much of it homegrown, in large parts of middle India better explains the feeling of insecurity. So does the expansion of mafia and criminal groups.

The challenge facing the Indian Republic is to recast and retool the nation to meet the demands of the times. There is little doubt that many of our favoured instrumentalities, rules and regulations continue to be designed to control rather than facilitate and are thus unable to engender enterprise. What we need is an inclusive public discourse that helps us debate public policy choices, not what we are currently being subjected to – a plethora of clever one-liners and dubious statistical claims.

This issue of Seminar attempts to debate some enduring concerns – concerns that our polity and society needs to urgently address. Otherwise, as stressed in a recent issue of Frontline, we will remain prisoners of ‘the feel good factory’.