//What should be our Government's priotities?

What should be our Government's priotities?

Will it be old wine in a new bottle or some altogether different combination in a novel package? Even as we near what looks set to be a nail-biting finish of the electoral process, it is clear that the end game is going to be the result of team play and that no individual (party) can aspire to be in the top place on the victory stand. The winner will be determined not so much by the voters, as by the negotiators. Magnetism — whom can you attract? — will be more important than compatibility; economics may well be more important than chemistry.

In any case, in just a few days we will have a new government. A young country is always an optimistic one, and so expectations will be high. The government — irrespective of its composition — will almost certainly announce a hundred-day plan, make bold policy pronouncements, and unveil numerous new schemes (some, most likely, old ones dressed in the newest finery) in the budget. Many problems and issues will vie for the government’s attention, and different lobbies will try to drive their agenda. Amidst all this pushing and jostling, shouting and protesting, one hopes that the new government does find the will to tackle some long-standing issues that affect the proverbial common man; what follows touches on but a few.

Enthusiastic reformers are now unlikely to focus on the financial sector, as the global flavour-of-the-moment is not reform but regulation. Instead, they are likely to concentrate on that last frontier: labour-law reforms. Sadly, there is continued neglect of reforms in a vital and much needed area: the criminal justice system — including both the police and the judiciary.

Police reforms, recommended by eminent Commissions set up by the government itself, have been a non-starter, since most governments (both Centre and the states, and irrespective of political affiliation) have stone-walled such reforms. Meanwhile, political interference, corruption and incompetence are becoming endemic. In many states, enforcement of law is minimal, “investigation” is through inhuman third-degree methods, and corruption now borders on extortion. Getting rid of serious crime is often attempted by getting rid of criminals through fake encounters. The rich and powerful react only when one of their own is affected; then, of course, even the media suddenly discovers its conscience.

Judicial reform has been on the drawing board almost as long as a typical case in the courts. Quite apart from the inter-generational time-frame of the legal system, the very processes seem to be mainly geared to keeping lawyers employed and well-paid.

Here is proof of India’s superior intelligence: who else could have crafted a system of complexities, adjournments, delays and appeals — not to mention vacations and strikes — that can so profusely enrich lawyers on both sides of a case? What justice does such a system deliver to a poor illiterate villager, journeying many miles to go through endless days of postponements and adjournments of hearings that take decades to reach a final judgement? A government that brings meaningful reforms in the police-judiciary system will be truly blessed by tens of millions of citizens.

Corruption has penetrated so deeply and widely into Indian society that it is now becoming almost acceptable. The corrupt individual is not
socially ostracised; he himself makes no attempt at hiding a lifestyle that is clearly beyond his known means of income and wealth. Will the new government focus on eliminating corruption at least from RTO, NREGA, hospitals and schools?

In today’s world, mobility is the key to livelihood. Improving connectivity, in both rural and urban India, must be a top priority for any government. Good roads from each village to the district centre, and within urban centres, are vital. Constructing these will, itself, be an important contributor to employment and growth. However, roads by themselves are not enough; efficient, reliable and affordable public transport is equally essential.

Connectivity also means pathways to transact information and to communicate. E-connectivity through high-capacity communication networks and access devices is, therefore, as important as physical linkages by road and rail. A crash programme to establish a nation-wide new-generation broad-band network, linking all habitations through a combination of fibre and wireless, in conjunction with provision of access points, can transform the country. For, information is now an important factor of production of goods and services; its availability can also be an important social equaliser, neutralising the socio-economic power of the middle-man, the petty bureaucrat and the aloof administrator.

Add to this relevant content, e-governance initiatives and the Right to Information, and you have a combination that is truly revolutionary in potential. An e-network can be created in a fraction of the time required for physical connectivity, and the benefits begin to accrue immediately — factors that should make this an attractive programme for a new government which would need some quick wins.

Thanks to the emerging knowledge economy, education has, more than ever before, become a means of social, economic and geographic mobility. For the disadvantaged, it is the magic pathway to escape poverty, oppression and the physical confines of their neighbourhood. Coping with the consequent explosion in demand for education, and ensuring a degree of equity in its quality, requires radical reforms in the education system — in its ossified and stifling framework. The Knowledge Commission had made some recommendations and the Yash Pal committee is now finalising its report on rejuvenating higher education. These need to be high priority items for the new government, which needs to radically reinvent the overall education system.

While a million other matters will contend for priority, the government would do well to focus on leveraging India’s technological capability to promote good governance, with an ideological bias for a bottom-up, pro-disadvantaged, growth and equity paradigm. This will ensure efficiency, transparency and accountability in delivery of public services and for programmes of rural employment, health and education: all key areas for the country and for political survival. This, then, may be the heady new elixir that is valuable even if it is in an old packaging.

(The author of this article Kiran Karnik is a strategy and policy analyst)

7 May 2009