There is a total disconnect between the vast majority of Indians and their elected rulers and their minions in the executive and judiciary, says Sudip Mazumdar.
There is much gloating over the budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Praise has poured in from unexpected quarters while opposition parties have made ritualistic grunts of disapproval.
All those sound bytes, however, miss a basic point -- what about implementation of the grand schemes and plans that the governments have been routinely announcing since independence? One does not have to be deep-trawling researcher to see that billions and billions have been spent, according to government account books, on agriculture, irrigation, primary healthcare, education, children and women’s health since 1947. And every year allocations on these heads have generally gone up. And yet, nothing seems to have changed in much of rural India, and many urban pockets.
Take a tour of the countryside. In most states, one would find millions of hungry malnourished children, ailing, half-starving women and men, non-existent roads, dilapidated schools and empty shell of health centres, if there are any. On top of all this, a ruthless police and local administration lords over the already sub-human existence of rural India. In short, a dystopian world of hopelessness and apathy.
Why so? Again, experts have written reams of research papers. Many of these are possibly erudite exposition on what ails most of India. But there are a few basic truths that a harried Indian would tell you.
Most importantly, the people who decide the fate of the majority of Indians don’t live their life. They live an extremely privileged life in big, inaccessible bungalows surrounded by manicured lawns with a retinue of servants and helpers, with uninterrupted water and electricity supplies -- all for free.
Over and above that, they are assured handsome salaries and privileges -- from hooting sirens atop their free cars to free expensive healthcare. One phone call or a nudge from one of those present-day rulers can make or mar an ordinary mortal’s life. In short, there is a total disconnect between the vast majority of Indians and their elected rulers and their minions in the executive and judiciary.
These rulers make plans and projects that are patronisingly handed down to the people, without really understanding with empathy the needs and wishes of the last woman or man. Enhanced monetary allocations are bandied about as proof of good intentions. Mention of poor and the marginal people in official documents are proffered as evidence of the government’s social responsibility. Doling out money on a fancy-sounding scheme is enough for the government to pat itself on the back for being pro-people.
And yet, more than half of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people still live in dire poverty, constantly harassed by the malfeasance of all arms of the government, when not summarily neglected. On the other hand, the privileged keep garnering privilege after privilege and wealth above wealth. Influence-peddling is the main occupation of the already powerful in our much-flaunted democracy.
Most of the annual budgetary allocations, that is, government funds, which are actually accumulated from every Indian, poor or rich, in the shape of direct and indirect taxes, is spirited away by the insatiable appetite by the powerful and the privileged. And the ordinary Indian remains stuck in her gloomy reality.
Enough of criticism and pointing out the scabs in India’s development planning. This criticism can be termed as fanciful if it were not accompanied by concrete suggestions for improvement.
If the finance minister really wants to better the life of the common citizen and thinks that the money he has allocated for various schemes is well spent, he can just do two things. And it would not cost him a rupee or call for new legislation. He can simply do it tomorrow with an executive order. And the results would start to show almost immediately.
First, he makes sure that all government projects, whether it is digging a well in a village worth a few lakhs, or laying a road connecting two cities or setting up a multi-million dollar power plant, are online with every tiny detail. The project report, time-line, contractors, suppliers, materials to be used -- every detail of a government project must be uploaded and constantly updated. Citizens can easily check if there is any difference between what is on offer and what they are actually getting.
Needless to say, this is the first step towards transparency that the Modi government says it wants to bring into governance. So Jaitley wouldn’t be out of step or be doing something heretical. And it wouldn’t cost anything because all government departments are overstaffed and have under-worked salaried men and women.
Second, accountability, another claim of the Modi government. Here is a suggestion. Through an executive order, a tiny percentage, say 0.5, of the total project cost can be set aside for an independent three-monthly implementation audit. For example, if a road project is to be completed in two years, then an independent body will do three-monthly audits of the progress or otherwise of the project. If there is any delay or lapse, it should have the power to fix responsibility and penalise the defaulters. The independent audit agency should also include representatives of local panchayat or an NGO or some well-known personalities of the area.
With these two simple steps, but with potential for hugely far-reaching impact, the government can turn its budget announcements meaningful for ordinary Indians. Or else, it would again be a document of lofty declarations that would fatten the pilferers and leave the common people in the lurch.
Sudip Mazumdar is a New Delhi-based journalist. He has reported for Newsweek for over three decades from the Indian subcontinent, and his writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, Scientific American and other publications.