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Bereft of choice

By Chitresh Kumar Feb 6 2018, 1:43 IST

In all likelihood, the last few weeks leading to March are going to be all about frenzied integration of all aspects of our lives with Aadhaar. The story of a modest brainchild of one government for direct subsidy transfers, transformed into a surveillance tool by another government. Amidst this Aadhaar frenzy, the Indian citizenry seems to have taken its eyes off the 2019 general elections.

Four years have gone past since we gave a clear mandate to the BJP-led NDA in Lok Sabha. However, lots of promises remain unfulfilled. While the first half of the tenure saw the government consumed in manoeuvering state elections, and a quest for a majority in the Rajya Sabha, too, the second half seems to be all about the BJP boasting about being in government in 19 states. If the Gujarat election was a build-up to 2019, the coming Karnataka election is going to be the dress-rehearsal.

As we inch towards 2020, India is yet to realise our demographic dividend. The market has hit nearly 35,000 points, a near 30% rise from 27,000 in December 2014. However, according to a Credit Suisse Report, income inequality has also risen, with the top 1% of the population owning 58% of the nation's wealth in 2016, as compared to 49% in 2014. In addition, tax collection stood at 16.7% of GDP, with only 53% potential realised.

High levels of income inequality, low tax realisation and a soaring share market translate into concentration of wealth and very little trickle-down effect. This is also evident through the low labour participation rate of 43% in November 2017, down from 46% a year ago as reported by CMIE. A projected 7-7.5% GDP growth rate in fiscal 2019, without improved employment rates and wages, means that inequality will further widen.

In addition, with a meagre spend of 3% and 1% of GDP on education and health respectively, a large section of society will fall in the traps of the chronic cycle of poor health, poor wages and then poor savings, leading to poor quality of life. Hence, for the time being, the zero poverty by 2022 dream seems just another populist rhetoric.

Those who have spent slightly more time on this planet as compared to the millennials can easily recall that the previous NDA government abolished the pension for government employees joining post-2003. Also, as per the SEBI Investor Survey 2015, 95% of Indians prefer bank fixed deposits as against other market-based instruments.

As interest rates for fixed deposits have reached a record low in the range of 6%, with stagnating wages and downward moving average household savings from 19.2% of GDP at current prices in FY16 to 18.5% in FY17, we are looking towards a young nation transforming into an old nation without post-retirement means of subsistence. If things are not put on the right course in another decade, then India-2050 is for sure leaning towards a demographic disaster, not dividend.

The government's offensive stance on the foreign affairs front also seems to be feigned. The Line of Control with Pakistan has become more violent since the NDA's coming. The silence on the Rohingya issue and the creation of a citizen's register in Assam will further alienate Bangladesh.

We have accumulated a mammoth trade deficit with China, and in Nepal and Sri Lanka, we are losing the battle in terms of infrastructure investment. With Hambantota port being the latest strategic loss and Maldives becoming a party to a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing, we seem to be surrounded by China.

The Swachh Bharat programme is yet to show results. With dengue taking the top position as the cause of deaths, apart from Malaria and Chikungunya, much needs to be done on the Swachh Bharat front. Meanwhile, there has been a 20% budget cut from the HIV/AIDS control programme.

The Smart City Mission for urban areas is taking precedence over all other previous physical infrastructure programmes. Bereft of any rationale for allocating Rs 1,000 crore to a city like Delhi with more than 20 million people, as well as for Namchi in Sikkim with a population of 15,000, the mission is yet to deliver success in terms of implementation.

Nothing major has been done to boost rural infrastructure development. Not tinkering with MNREGA seems to be the good deed of the government. Waiving of farmer loans and insuring loss of crops covering 30% of farmers is a welcome change. However, its success lies in an actual waiver, or claims transferred directly to the farmers and to the deserving ones. The proposed linking of rivers might address the current flooding and draught crises across regions, but requires caution from an environmental perspective.

Absolving accountability

Amidst all these macro issues, the government has silently initiated modifications in the central secretariat manual of office procedure, a document providing clear timelines for communication between the Centre and the public. The privilege of receiving acknowledgement in 15 days and a response in the next 15 is now limited to Members of Parliament and VIPs only. Absolving the government of accountability in terms of time-bound replies may further induce inefficiencies within the system.

Though most of these parameters fared even worse during the UPA II government, the Congress must still discuss these macro issues publicly. Else, its case for 2019 will be unconvincing. If employment creation, wage stagnation, social security, infrastructure development, healthcare and foreign affairs are not going to be the issues for the 2019 general elections, and if Hindutva and temple visits influence the voter's psyche, then many might conclude that the NDA is a better choice than UPA. India may have democratic elections, but no choice.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Business School)

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