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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Good Policy

Need Governance

In many ways, the government has embarked on a path breaking route, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy.

To begin with, there is the issue of fertilizer subsidies. In one fell swoop, by targeting subsidies on the basis of nutrients, the government has changed the game. Now farmers will look to nutrients other than urea. This will increase yields dramatically. Urea-based fertilizers were good and government policies championed their use. Over the years, it became clear that they had passed the point of diminishing returns. Everywhere in the world, governments promoted suplhur-based and other nutrients in the mix to increase yields and protect the soil.

With all the noise about food inflation, the government has pointed to the exploitative role of middlemen in the journey that farm products make from the fields to the market. The finance minister made several references to the need for organized retail in the grocery business, most recently at the CII national meeting in Delhi.

Coming to taxes, the finance minister, in his budget speech, cut individual taxes while increasing some indirect levies. The idea is sterling: put more money in the hands of middle class families and let them decide what they can or cannot afford. If I am considering buying a car and it costs a few thousand rupees more, it is my call. By putting economic decisions in the hands of citizens, the government has made a major paradigm shift.

On internal security, the government has made major moves. It has taken on the Maoist movement in central India with force. The most recent incident in Dantewada only underscored the Prime Minister’s six-old assessment that Maoists pose the most significant threat to national security. True, there are complaints of security forces riding roughshod over the militants. But then, Dantewada showed that the Maoists are not known for their grace and diplomacy either. This tough approach seeks not only to contain the insurgents but to send a clear message that this is a hard government that will not stomach violent agitations.

On the national security front, the government has embarked on a new course. While initiating talks with Pakistan, it authorized a major Air Force exercise in the desert of Rajasthan to demonstrate its fighting capabilities. It was a brilliant move to invite most defense attaches of diplomatic missions and to leave out the representatives of China and Pakistan. The idea clearly was to exhibit hard power.

To reinforce the government’s hard line, the Prime Minister went to Saudi Arabia and urged the authorities there to weigh in with Pakistan to control the various terrorist groups that operate from there. It’s clear the Pakistan government has neither the wherewithal nor the will to reign in various terrorist groups that have a free run within its borders. A Saudi nudge could go a long way to boost the crippled Zardari government and the rogue elements within its army and the intelligence agency.

The emphasis on infrastructure is a key feature aspect of the government’s priorities. Roads, ports, airports, railroads are being built. The trouble is that corrupt and inept government agencies are in charge and its users are citizens, who lack civic consciousness. Thus it gets caught up in the bottlenecks caused by lackadaisical enforcement and scofflaw citizens.

Many cities now have modern airports; they are like white elephants because the minute you step outside there is total chaos. It’s the same thing for the highways. We recently traveled to Chandigarh from Delhi. The road is a work in progress and there are significant flyovers and wide pavements. But there is total traffic chaos. Even as you rev to the top speed of 90 kilometers an hours, you find yourself having to deal with vehicles going the wrong way, underpowered trucks, three-wheeled vehicles, bullock carts, cycle rickshaws, handcarts, herds of cows and sheep and scariest of all, daredevil pedestrians trying to cross the highway. There is simply no policing, no signage or any other accoutrements that go with modern highways. It’s almost as though modern amenities are made available to people with a medieval mindset.

Tragedy is the police have no authority to enforce the law. Even worse, they don’t even know the law. Just recently, I stopped a police car on the spanking new expressway that connects Delhi and Gurgaon to the airports. I told the police officer that the unchecked use of the expressway by two- and three-wheeled vehicles was a major traffic violation. I told him there were signs that these vehicles were not allowed. He told me to mind my own business. The government needs also to show its hard self here as much as it is doing with the Maoists in central India.

In the end, you have a modernizing government that is beset by a crude political class, a malignant bureaucracy and a pre-modern citizenry. As such, even though the government pursues enlightened policies, the ship of state seems to be caught on the rocks of casteism, communalism and corruption.

Bureaucrats blame crass politicians and the ignorant citizenry. Politicians castigate the bureaucracy. Citizens berate politicians and bureaucrats. It’s a sort of beggar-thy-neighbor view that enables the entire system to elude responsibility. If everyone’s to blame, then nobody is accountable.

This is the challenge for India that the world deems as an up and coming power.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Times of India, April 21, 2010

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010