LAST week the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council announced that the economy was slowing down and that the forecast for the near future is gloomy. This should worry us, of course, but it should worry our political class even more but there is no sign yet that this has begun to happen.
The bleak pronouncements of the Prime Minister’s advisors made headlines in newspapers across the country but when Parliament opened for the second day of this session all we got was the usual noise and chaos. No sooner did the Speaker finish reading obituary notices than the Opposition MPs started shouting and screaming and then descended en masse into the well of the House. Both Houses were adjourned several times and no business was conducted because the Opposition decided to force the government to allow a discussion on corruption and price rise that involved voting.
Why do these procedural matters need to be discussed in the House at all? Why is it not possible for them to be discussed with the Speaker outside the House?
Could it be because it has been so long since there was a full session of Parliament that our MPs have forgotten how to debate? The winter session of Parliament was wasted over another procedural matter. The Opposition parties wanted a Joint Parliament Committee to go into the 2G spectrum scam and the government insisted that the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) was their instrument of choice.
An entire session was wasted over this meaningless procedural argument and in the end the government agreed to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee. Since that wasted session we have seen more political action and lawmaking outside Parliament than inside it.
In April, social activist Anna Hazare went on the first of his fasts unto death, in June we had the Baba Ramdev shenanigans and as for laws they came from Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council. This busybody council has given us draft laws on food security, communal violence and land acquisition. Currently, it is busy putting together a law on the Lokpal that it hopes will be better than the one produced by Hazare’s team of Leftist lawyers and social activists.
So now that we finally have a session of Parliament those of us who believe in parliamentary democracy had hoped to see some responsible behaviour from our MPs. What is even more disturbing is that instead of discussing the economic slowdown, that the Prime Minister’s own office has now announced, our MPs continue to be more worried about procedural matters. Their irresponsibility was matched by the media with every one of our 24-hour news channels falling over themselves to give us the latest on the hullagulla in Parliament and not a moment to spare for what the Prime Minister’s economic advisors have to say.
What they have to say is serious and they have not minced their words. Their report says, ‘It is absolutely imperative that active measures to improve the investment climate be taken.’ They admit that the climate for investment has deteriorated because of roadblocks created by the Ministry of Environment, by bottlenecks in power, roads and ports, by mining restrictions on coal and the slow pace of project approvals. They suggest that these road blocks be removed urgently and that the government announce new projects and indicate that it is still interested in the economic reform process going forwards.
Since this comes from the Prime Minister’s own office, the good news is that he appears to have understood the urgent need to put the Indian economy back on track. The bad news is that there is no indication that the Opposition parties, Sonia Gandhi’s NAC or our self-appointed representatives of civil society have understood the problems that India could face if the economy continues to slow down.
As someone who remembers well what India was like when the economy grew at 3.5% (in a good year) allow me to remind you of what it was like. There were queues for every single thing and shortages of every single thing. People waited 20 years to be allotted a telephone line. I can remember begging MP friends to help me get a gas connection and if you wanted to buy a car or a scooter you could wait for many years. Simple every day things like milk and sugar were always in short supply and those who could not afford to buy them in the ‘black’ did without or sought the services of a politician or official to extract them from the government’s ration shops.
There was no middle-class to speak of and the only people who profited from the socialist economic policies that we followed till 1991 were politicians and officials because they controlled the licence-quota-permit raj.
India has, mercifully, come a very long way since those unfortunate times but we could slide backwards unless the Prime Minister is allowed to implement the recommendations of his economic advisors. After two years of remaining hidden in the backrooms of his own government there have been signs in recent weeks that he is beginning to assert himself once more. We can only hope that he continues to do this because if the slowdown continues and the investment climate continues to get worse there is little doubt that India’s fight against poverty will slow down as well.
We may not be anywhere near winning it right now but even hardened Leftists admit that in the past 20 years at least 300 million Indians have been lifted out of extreme poverty and become part of the growing middle class. For this process to move forwards faster and more effectively it is vital that the government has the money to more than double what we currently spent on education and healthcare.
Possibly the biggest flaw in the policies that Dr. Manmohan Singh has followed since he became prime minister in 2004 is that he has not done enough to reform our appalling record in the social sector. India spends less on education than some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The solution lies not in forcing private schools to enroll underprivileged children, but in forcing government schools to provide a standard of education that we need not be ashamed of. All these things come under the banner of economic reforms. It is not just physical infrastructure that has not been built fast enough since 2004 but social infrastructure as well. There is much work to be done. It is time to get beyond scams and fasts unto death.