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India stands at a turning point in its history.  This is the time to dream, to move ahead with planned strategy and not vacillate, says Ramesh Menon, as false moves might prove costly. The nation needs to take stock of the serious problems facing it and replicate the successes of the White Revolution, the liberalisation of the telecom sector and major infrastructural projects such as the Delhi Metro and the Golden Quadrilateral network.

Estimates say that by 2020 the Indian workforce will be equivalent to the combined working population of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Try to visualise that. Around 140 million or so will migrate to Indian cities in another 12 years as opportunities explode. Is India prepared for this? The high rate of urbanization is just one of our many challenges. We as a nation can achieve our fullest potential only if the following 15 issues are addressed on priority:

  1. Better Governance

    Governance in India today is at its weakest, next generation of reforms are slow and unsure, credibility of the political class is at its lowest ebb and scandals and corruption stories are all over. The record is disappointing on the human development front too.

    Good governance is of primary importance as it overarches all the other problems. It can lead towards better delivery systems and effective implementation of policies; better education, increased agricultural productivity and creation of infrastructure.

    What is needed is a system of accountability, rewards and punishment for politicians and bureaucrats.

  2. Introduce Reforms in Education

    About 35% of the world's illiterate population is Indian and based on historic patterns of literacy growth across the world, India may account for a majority of the world's illiterates by 2020.

    Government figures show that 94% of India’s population lives within one kilometre of a primary school and 84% had upper primary schools within a distance of three km. But the harsh reality is that only 80% of those between 6-14 years go to school and from that many drop out. Many schools have only one teacher and one classroom and too many children. Female children are few and literacy rates are as low as 61 per cent.

    Education needs a complete reform and the syllabus has to be dynamic with definite learning outcomes.

  3. Enhance Quality of Education

    When the Central Board of Secondary Education conducted a competency test for B.Ed aspirants in 2012, 7.95 lakh aspirants took the test and 99% failed!  What kind of teachers are shaping the careers of your children? The quality of teachers in our schools, colleges and universities needs to be improved drastically through periodic training and evaluation.

    The National Knowledge Commission has proposed an increase in the number of universities from the present 350 to 1,500 by 2016. It has also proposed an increase in the 18-24 age groups to reach university level from 7% to 15%. While this is welcome, Indian universities will have to pick up the best practices from leading universities and open up education to reputed and committed private players.

  4. Control Galloping Prices

    There has to be greater independence for the Reserve Bank of India. It would help if the people know that macro-economic stability for the RBI is dominated by the goal of keeping inflation low and stable. There are enough bright minds in India that can be put together to develop a credible long term strategy for a fiscal policy.

    India’s gross fiscal deficit remains one of the highest in the world. Government liabilities have been increasing at an alarming rate and might accelerate above seven per cent due to populist proposals where debt of farmers are waived, government salaries hiked and subsidies increased. Less expenditure on health, education and infrastructure is counter-productive.

    A fiscal policy that reduces the overall deficit to a sustainable level is critical for India as it would discipline the government and politicians, restrain populist spending, improve governance and make the fiscal deficit largely independent of political and election cycles.

  5. Fight Hunger

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Picture of a severely malnourished child from Guna district in MP. Picture credit: UNICEF

    Inspite of having huge food stocks, why is India home to about 25% of the world's poor? Why does India account for 42% of the world's stunted, wasted and underweight children?

    Despite significant economic progress in the past decade, India is home to about 25 percent of the world's hungry poor. At 42%, the nation has the largest number of stunted, wasted and underweight children. Close to two million children below the age of five die in India every year. Of these, over a million deaths can be attributed to under-nutrition and hunger.

    A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute has sharply criticised India for not moving fast enough to reduce malnourishment, and has said that its nutritional indicators are far worse than its economic indicators merit. Ironically, India has a huge stock of food grains but it is rotting in the open as there are no godowns to store them safely and hygienically.

  6. Liberalisation and Reforms

    IIt is still a feat for entrepreneurs to swim through a maze of red tape, permissions, paper work and unnecessary delays. It would take a week or more for a ship to load and unload in Mumbai as compared to a few hours in Singapore. Various economic sectors need dynamic reforms driven by political will.

    India’s financial sector unnecessarily remains small and underdeveloped. As markets lack in corporate debt, currency and derivatives, there is lack of credit and low financial savings. Total credit, at 50% of GDP remains well below that of its Asian neighbours and especially compared with China. Consumer credit remains abysmally low at 11% of GDP compared with an Asian average of over 40% of GDP. Household savings tend to be in physical assets and gold, and risk diversification channels are not available.

    To meet its growth potential, India needs to pursue financial reforms to channel savings effectively into investment, meet funding requirements for infrastructure and enhance financial stability. Savers need to have access to a broad range of financial instruments, while borrowers should be able to access local debt and equity.

  7. Introduce Electoral Reforms

    HHow many more years do we have to wait to see legislation that bars criminals from contesting elections? Though the Election Commission of India has pleaded with the government to stop criminals from contesting, concrete steps are awaited.

    Political parties and candidates spend a huge amount of money in elections and this is one of the root causes for corruption. Politicians are under constant pressure to fill the party coffers. The Election Commission had brought in a lot of transparency in the last two decades and now needs to prevent moneybags from influencing elections.

  8. Ensure a Fair Deal for Women

    Women have to be brought into the mainstream, respected and given opportunities to excel. A free and modern society values its women, takes pride in what they stand for and lets them bloom. Does economic growth make sense when our women are treated shabbily?

  9. Judicial Reforms

    There are around 40 million cases pending in the courts, of which, nearly 60 lakh are criminal cases. There is an acute shortage of judges and even courts with just 11 judges for a population of a million. What is needed is a fair, speedy and impartial system of justice.

    There was a proposal to start the Indian Judicial Service to ensure that more judges are available, but numerous states have not approved the idea and it remains pending.

  10. Woo Neighbours with Commerce

    Nothing works like commerce. If India ensures healthy economic exchanges with its neighbours like China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, there would be the birth of a new relationship.

    Trade with China is presently low with India taking in just around two per cent of China’s exports and about 1.50 per cent of its imports. Political differences and disputes have been at the heart of the problem with trade not developing as it could with India’s neighbours.

  11. Concentrate on Agriculture

    Increasing agricultural growth is critical for India to sustain high growth rates and move millions out of poverty.

    India is an agricultural economy and it is precisely this fact that helped India cushion the international recession. There was money in rural India and so the economy kept going as there were goods being bought in the market. Currently, 60% of the labour force is employed in agriculture, which contributes less than 1% of overall growth.

    India’s agricultural yields are a fraction of those of its more dynamic Asian neighbours. For instance, rice yields are a third of China’s and half of Vietnam’s. A lot of land is also being lost to industrialization and urbanization apart from soil erosion due to intensive farming and environmental degradation.

    The key therefore is raising agricultural productivity with technological inputs. Public investment in agriculture has to be substantially increased. Investments have to be made in electricity, irrigation, rural roads and food grain storage.

  12. Improve Infrastructure

    Clogged airports, poor roads, power cuts, poor sewage treatment, garbage in the open, delays in construction of ports and other infrastructure, clearing exports through customs are all problem areas.

    Indian companies lose 30 days in obtaining an electricity connection, 15 days in clearing exports through customs and seven per cent of the value of their sales due to power outages. India’s growth will demand energy, transport, logistics and communication.

    The Planning Commission estimates that India needs to almost double its ports, roads, power, airports and telecom infrastructure in the next five years to sustain growth and that will require an additional $500 billion over the next five years.

    India needs to replicate her success stories- for instance, the country built more than 3,600 miles of highways in the last few years under the Golden Quadrilateral project, whereas in the previous 50 years it had built only 300 miles.

    Another example is the Delhi Metro which was completed earlier than envisaged. Then, there was the privatization of the telecom sector and its rapid growth and penetration that was enough to demonstrate that India could do transformational things to change its future.

  13. Environmental Protection

    As India grows, it is imperative to improve its environmental quality and ensure sustainable development. Lessons should be drawn from what has happened in countries like China that have destroyed their environment while pursuing economic growth.

    Environmental degradation for India would mean declining agricultural areas and productivity due to soil erosion; reduced labour productivity from poor urban air quality, and the threat of toxic and chemical waste in the environment, among others.

    In the next five years, India plans to add some 70,000 MW and will largely use coal that is damaging. The World Bank estimates that small and medium enterprises account for 70% of total industrial pollution, and are a major source of environmental degradation.

    A tight regulatory mechanism along with economic incentives for those adopting new technology and penalties for those polluting.

  14. Root Out Corruption

    This is not as easy as one would imagine. Corruption has got into our bloodstream. There has to be another independence struggle to raise our sense of guilt and start working towards a system where corruption is looked down upon. What is needed is a high degree of intolerance towards corruption.

  15. Stop Female Foeticide

    Millions of girls have been killed in India even before they were born. Female feticide is rising as India races down the economic expressway and thinks loosely that it is going to be a world power to contend with. More than ten million female fetuses have been illegally aborted. The Lancet Journal has reported that 500,000 girls are annually killed through sex selective abortions. In 2011, as many as 15,000 women were bought and sold as brides in areas where feticide led to an acute shortage of women. We need to realize the long term damage that is going to plague India if the killing of the girl child continues.

The Road Ahead
The way forward is to work towards a dramatically transformed Indian State. It means making democratic decision-making effective, reintegrating constitutional liberalism into the practice of democracy, rebuilding broken political institutions and augmenting social capital. Everyone talks of the Gross Domestic Product as if that is the only path to progress and change. Why does anyone not talk of Gross National Happiness? Are we happy in our country despite the growing wealth, prosperity and everything else? We have to look into the mirror and work towards intrinsic changes if we are to leap into the future and compete with the world.