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As the UPA Government settles down to the business of governance in its second term, there are competing demands for its mindshare. While the neoliberals, emboldened by the UPA’s parting of ways with the Left, are pushing for big ticket economic reforms, the champions of grand pro-poor interventions, who ascribe the UPA electoral gains to such initiatives during the UPA’s Government’s first term, are pressing for another round of populist measures. Hopefully, the Government will have the discernment to steer clear of ideological prescriptions and be guided by a robust pragmatism while setting out its agenda in the social and economic spheres. The need of the hour is to focus on meaningful, even if unspectacular, measures that will empower the common man and enhance his capacity to realize his full potential.
Going by this criterion, the most pressing task before the new government would be the overhaul of the education and public health sectors. Contrary to the received wisdom, the scope for private enterprise and public-private partnership in these domains is rather limited. The major thrust for extending the reach of these critical service sectors and raising the quality of their outputs, which at present is abysmal, has to come from the government.
For a country that does not tire of crowing about its demographic dividend and expanding pool of skilled manpower, we have invested too little and too inefficiently in building our human capital. It is no secret that in the last two governments, the Ministers of Human Resource Development had been intent on pursuing their own regressive and divisive agendas for partisan ends and had no interest in addressing the crisis in the education sector. The Ministry of Health, having forsaken the objective of ‘Health for All by 2000’, has also been adrift. In a large number of states, there has been no tangible improvement in key health parameters, leading to an unchecked and enormous wastage of human resources. The Union Government’s reform initiatives need not be inhibited by the fact that under the constitutional scheme education and health are state subjects. As the experience of the Value Added Tax and the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission has demonstrated, states are quick to respond to well designed financial incentives and disincentives.
Having been given the rare opportunity of a second successive five year term, the UPA government has had sufficient time to acquire an in-depth understanding of the problems of governance and internalise the solutions proposed by various expert bodies. There is no excuse now for deferring decisive action on the most serious afflictions of the system of governance.
* GOVERNANCE AGENDA
|* JUSTICES & DELIVERY OF JUSTICE
* PATENT PROTECTION IN DRUGS
* CONTINGENCY PLAN FOR PRUDENT WIVES
The system of dispensation of justice in the country has failed to meet the legitimate aspirations of the people for speedy, affordable and substantial justice. It has become imperative to reduce the inordinately high cost of dispute resolution, both in terms of money and time, and prevent the all too frequent miscarriages of justice, which undermine the rule of law and erode people’s faith in the judiciary. The government also has to take the lead in evolving a consensus for streamlining the system of appointments to the higher judiciary, enforcing judicial accountability and reforming the notoriously dilatory procedural laws.
Equally important and urgent are police reforms, which vested interests have succeeded in stalling. The mandatory and time-bound directions given by the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh and the pledges and commitments repeatedly made in political manifestos and government declarations have been of no avail. The Union Government is morally obliged to set its own house in order and enact a comprehensive law to transform the police in the Union Territories from a handmaid of the government of the day to an instrument of the rule of law at the service of the people. The Supreme Court directions and the formulations of the Police Act Drafting Committee and of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) provide a useful template for such a legislative initiative. Only after enacting the new police law will the Union Government have the authority and credibility to prevail upon the states to follow suit. Concurrently, the government will have to make concerted efforts, including generous allocations, to modernise the police forces and integrate them into a cohesive internal security framework.
The ARC has made a seminal contribution to the study of the system of governance in India and come up with cogent propositions for making the administrative machinery perform the task for which it has been created. It will be a great tragedy if the considered recommendations of the ARC were to be treated with the usual levity and insouciance. The government must use this opportunity to jettison old frames of reference, reinvent the system of delivery of public goods and services and institute modern systems of human resource management for optimising the performance of legions of its functionaries.
In parallel, determined efforts need to be made to mobilise the rural poor, who are supposed to be recipients of the lion’s share of the State’s largesse. They must be given the power and means to hold the bureaucracy accountable on a quotidian basis. A beginning can be made with the rightbased National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).
Despite its uneven implementation across states, the Scheme has been an important instrument of empowerment of the rural poor. It has made a significant impact on their capacity to withstand the hardships of seasonal unemployment and meet their basic needs. It has also raised agricultural productivity by augmenting the stock of productive social capital in disadvantaged rural areas. The implementation of the Scheme has thrown up issues of agency of the beneficiaries and the role of Panchayati Raj institutions. Other areas of weakness include quality of technical support during planning and execution of projects, sustainability of the public assets created and efficacy of the mechanisms for ensuring transparency and accountability. These issues need to be addressed on priority before the contemplated expansion of the Scheme and its replication in urban areas.
Let us hope that the NREGS will be the thin end of the wedge that will help prise the barriers to open, responsive and accountable government.