STATE OF THE NATION: CHALLENGES FOR THE GOVERNMENT

There are many challenges before Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite the fact that he heads a government that virtually has no Opposition worth the name in the Lok Sabha. It is the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) that has derailed his strategies of development and governance. Modi has been unable to strike an effective mechanism with the Opposition and this threatens to further acerbate tensions during the forthcoming budget session of parliament.

But there are positives in the Indian economy. The advance estimates of national income, released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) last Monday, indicate that driven by manufacturing and services, the overall GDP growth rate for the current financial has been pegged at 7.6 per cent, better than the 7.2 per cent for the last financial year (2014-15). On the face of it, India has done well to weather back-to-back droughts as well as the crash in exports without losing its way. But, according to some economists, not all data was positive. Nevertheless, it is now beyond any reasonable doubt that India remains a bright spot in the world. The future will however, depend on policy action by the government as well as a normal monsoon. This will also be a challenge for the skills of the government in governance and strategizing its implementation strategies.

Government – Opposition friction needs to end

Under the circumstances, there is consensus among experts that the government’s reform and development agenda needs to go forward at a faster rate. And for this, the stalemate in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) where the NDA does not have a majority and where most reform bills are stuck, needs to end. This implies better government – opposition relations. Unfortunately this does not appear to be happening.

The BJP does not seem especially keen of cooperating with the Opposition parties, especially the Congress, in the run-up to the Budget Session of Parliament, due to begin in a couple of weeks from now, so that a serious attempt may yet be made to get through some key items pending on the legislative agenda.

Modi has begun striking at the Congress. At Paradip in Orissa, while inaugurating the refinery project of Indian Oil Corporation on Sunday, he hit out at his principal opponent, saying the Congress did not bother about starting and completing projects on time. And just a few days earlier, while inaugurating the South Asian Games in the Northeast, the Prime Minister hit out at “a particular family” — meaning Sonia and Rahul Gandhi — for sabotaging the Rajya Sabha to slow down the government’s reform and development agenda.

This is in contrast to the same prime minister reaching out to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on the eve of the Winter Session of Parliament in December, to seek their cooperation to get the GST Bill through. He even agreed to get back to them on the points of disagreement they had with the government bill in a bid to reach a compromise. But the government did not get back for a constructive engagement.

Apathy in dealing with droughts and relief

While relations between the government and the Opposition continue to be sour, there is increasing rural distress that needs urgent attention. Parts of India are reeling under drought but there is complete apathy in the manner in which the administration and the state is dealing with those affected by it. Back in the late-1980s, many states across India were reeling under back-to-back droughts for three consecutive years, not much different from the circumstances of India in 2015-16. At that time, for Central and state governments, as for the media and public opinion, there was little that was weightier than responding, or being seen to respond, to the ongoing drought. And while administrations did slip and falter and corruption was not uncommon, there was no doubt what the preeminent duty of the state was to do everything to ensure food, water and work for all. To save lives.

According to Harsh Mander, former civil servant and presently human rights worker and writer says this seems to have been forgotten in the India of today. Farmers and landless workers in 11 states are crushed by drought, often for three years in a row, but neither the media nor Parliament highlight the plight of the poor.

Travelling to the rural backwaters of Bundelkhand in UP, Mander writes: “In villages that I visited in district Banda… I encountered desperate people eating just one meal a day, and that too coarse ground grain mixed with wild leaves…..In an estimated seven out of 10 households, not just men but often entire families had migrated to places as far as Punjab, Hyderabad, Surat and Delhi. Schools, therefore, were rapidly emptying out.

“I found evidence of widespread intense food and drinking-water distress — and this when the summer months are not even upon us yet. There were also alarming reports of farmer suicides. The current drought was preceded, ironically, by a hailstorm that destroyed all standing crops. Many farmers, unable to pay off mounting crop debts, killed themselves after these recurring crop losses. But unlike in many other regions of endemic farmer suicides, we heard of landless labourers and marginal farmers also ending their lives. Their debts were not to banks but to usurious moneylenders who loaned at compound interest rates of 5 per cent per month….

“The response of the state administration to looming drought is disgracefully dismal and listless, lacking entirely in both urgency and compassion. People showed us empty job cards; public works under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that provides for a minimum of 100 days employment to the rural poor), the most effective instrument to prevent distress migration, were nowhere to be found. Wages from earlier work had not been paid for over a year. Even more gravely, neither the Central nor the state government is serious about rolling out the National Food Security Act that should lawfully have commenced a year and a quarter ago. It would have ensured the availability of half of each household’s monthly cereal requirements almost for free for more than 80 per cent of households….”

The government wakes up to rural distress

There is a contrary view to the above according to which pro-poor schemes are bringing in change and empowerment in rural India. The Hindu says “study after study has found that MGNREGS has served as a source of employment for the poor in distress situations such as drought, crop failures and lean rural employment days. It has helped raise rural wages steadily over time, and in places where it has been implemented well, built rural assets such as irrigation canals and roads have augmented local infrastructure.

Yet, it is also evident now that over the last five years there has been sluggishness in MGNREGS’s implementation. There have been ups and downs in the Central outlay for the scheme, in terms of allocations as a percentage of overall budget spending and, most importantly, delays in releasing funds to States for wage payments. This has led to a relative slack in demand and consequently a drop in the work hours and even a decline in the average rural wage rate increases in these years. This is primarily There is acknowledgement that the scheme could be better implemented because both the Congress-led UPA in its second term in government and the current BJP-led regime have been less than enthusiastic about the need for the scheme. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who saw MGNREGA as a symbol of the failures of the Congress governments, “it took a distressed agrarian situation with the failure of the rabi crop and less-than-optimal rains for the MGNREGS to get its due…” The government has released funds lately for better implementation of the scheme that is now considered the bedrock of welfarism.

In the end, the manner in which the government deals with the opposition and implements its policies will determine its longevity beyond its present term.