Modi's India: doing biz easier; getting jobs, food not so

Modi's India: doing biz easier; getting jobs, food not so

The Narendra Modi government's claims on performance - whether it is over the economy or the social sector - have become an embarrassing bunch of contradictions. Consider this, for instance: at a time when the Modi government is flaunting India's "quantum leap" on the World Bank's 'Ease of Doing Business' index, it is also at pains to explain why it is pumping the "highest ever" amounts into welfare schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (MGNREGS), or more popularly NREGA.

India's admittedly higher ranking - a jump from 130 to 100 - this year on the Ease of Doing Business index, which is seen as indicative of a better business environment, stands in stark contrast with the increased spending on the rural jobs initiative. Prime Minister Modi's public speeches these days also highlight that his government is "pro-poor", obviously to counter the Opposition's charge of being a "suit-boot ki sarkar" – a government for big businesses and the rich.

Last week, the Rural Development ministry issued a statement to explain the efforts it was making to ensure that adequate funds were available to the rural jobs initiative. It claimed that the budgetary allocation for NREGS for the current financial year was the highest ever at Rs 48,000 crore, adding that there was no paucity of funds for the scheme – the very same scheme that Modi had once reviled as the "living monument of the failure of the UPA government".

The Rural Development ministry said that of the budgetary allocation, it had already released Rs 40,480 crore as of end-October, Rs 4,500 crore more than the funds released during the corresponding period last year. Even in this, while the government is putting out numbers to buttress its claims of being supportive of welfare schemes, the Opposition and activists are putting out competing data that says the government is not doing enough for the rural poor.

They claim that the NREGA allocations are inadequate. The government has resorted to cutting the number of days of work available under the scheme. This at a time, they say, when people have gone back to their villages in search of work following last year's demonetisation and the "faulty" roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax regime has forced many small businesses across the country to shut down.

Activists also accuse the government of not releasing enough funds for NREGS, causing these works to slow down. "There is a crisis on the ground as people are demanding work but are not getting it," said Nikhil Dey of the Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. According to the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, over 92 million active workers are not getting wages on time. The delayed wage payments amount to Rs 3,066 crore.

It is against this worrisome backdrop that the government is keen to cite the Ease of Doing Business report to claim that the economy is not doing all that badly. The EoDB report ranked India at the 100th position, as against the 130th  spot last year. These rankings are based on the country's performance in several areas, such as ease of starting a business, getting construction permits, getting electricity, contract enforcement, etc.

Ground reality

But does the World Bank report reflect the actual ground situation in India? This question is answered by the World Bank
itself. It states that it had taken into account the business environment only in Delhi
and Mumbai to compile its findings.

The World Bank's assessments do not necessarily reflect the daily experiences faced
by businesses. For instance, one of the points
on which India's score has risen is the "improvement" in getting credit. Is that true? The reality is that banks are not lending, especially to businesses, as they are under the pressure of mounting bad loans. Indeed, it is the problem at the root of slowing economic growth and it is what forced the government recently to announce a massive recapitalisation of public sector banks.

In the social sector, the Modi government claims to have improved delivery of targeted subsidies by ensuring Aadhaar seeding of ration cards and plugging leakages, thus saving huge amounts of money that would otherwise have been pilfered.

Since 2013, it claims, 2.48 crore bogus/duplicate ration cards have been eliminated in the country, with savings of Rs 14,000 crore to the exchequer.

But, to each of success story the government claims, there is a counter that exposes its failures. At least three starvation deaths have occurred in Jharkhand in recent months, all thanks to a heartless bureaucratic system that denies the poorest people food for want of an Aadhaar-linked ration card. Jharkhand's chief secretary had declared invalid all ration cards that were not linked with Aadhaar.

Jharkhand's Food Minister Saryu Rai admitted that 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari died of starvation due to denial of ration. Two others - 45-year-old rickshaw-puller Baijnath Ravidas and 64-year-old Ruplal Marandi - also lost died of hunger for a similar reason.

Denial of ration from the PDS was a common allegation of the families of all the three victims, forcing the Centre to issue clarifications that Aadhaar is not mandatory to receive subsidised foodgrains. The Right to Food Campaign, Jhar ­khand, has demanded that the UIDAI, initiate legal action against the state chief secretary for his order on the Aadhaar-linkage.

Infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate, too, have been falling over the years, which is a welcome sign. According to government data, infant mortality had reduced to 41 deaths per 1,000 births in 2015-16 from 57 in 2005-06.

Similarly, maternal mortality has fallen from 254 deaths per 1,00,000 live births in 2004-06 to 167 in 2011-13. However, these encouraging signs pale when reports of infant deaths in Gorakhpur (443 deaths in September), Nashik (55 deaths in August) and Ahmedabad (18 deaths over three days in October) are heard.

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