By Dhurjati Mukherjee
At a time when farmers are agitating for their rights and the entire Opposition supporting them, the Government’s stance of unwilling to budge is very unfortunate. Worse, the message that goes out to the thousands of farmers across the country is that they are certainly not a priority for this government. Instead its energies are being spent on the Central Vista project, estimated to cost over Rs 20,000 crore and aims to erect new buildings for Parliament, the Central secretariat and the residences of the Prime Minister and the Vice President. Both the health sector and the economy too take a back seat!
Some experts believe that the bhavans (government ministries) in Delhi reflect Soviet-style architecture and the clunky look very much mirrored the dominant political paradigm of the time. Thus, these need to be replaced with modern architecture without analysing deeply the exchequer’s ability to meet this massive expenditure. Recently, an analyst pointed out that this project will create jobs as if this wasteful expenditure is the ideal way for employment generation.
Though the Supreme Court allowed Prime Minister Modi to lay the foundation stone for the Vista, the three-judge bench recorded an undertaking from the government that no further construction, demolition or tree removals would be taken up until the court decided on the batch of PILs seeking scrapping of the project. Besides, the environmental concern, the financial condition of the country is far from encouraging, specially due to the prolonged pandemic-induced lockdown.
With the farmers agitating in biting cold for the past three weeks, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala very rightly pointed out: “Modiji, history will record that when lakhs of farmers were fighting on the streets for their rights, you were building a palace for yourself in the garb of Central Vista project. In a democracy, power is not fulfilling personal whims but a medium of public serve and welfare”. Many others have pointed out that the government is snatching the fundamental rights of the poor and accuse the government and Modi of “This is a crime against humanity. We will have to honour the rights of every section of society for a better future for India”
The farmers are clearly dissatisfied with the government’s proposals to make amends and demand a complete scrapping and codification of the MSP regime in law. The protest is also against the Prime Minister’s observation of private investments in farming made at the recent Annual General Meeting of FICCI, confirming their farmers’ worst fears. As he himself stated: “In the fields of supply chain, cold storage and areas like fertilisers etc. both interest and investments of the private sector are needed.”
The Prime Minister further observed “After reforms, farmers will get new benefits of technology. The country’s cold storage infrastructure will be modern. By doing this, there will be more investments in agriculture that will benefit farmers”. But technology does not reach small or even medium farmers and all this is intended at corporatisation of the agricultural sector. Surely, the government must try to be more convincing.
Other than the farmers protest which has come into sharp focus, the government has sadly completely lost its focus on priorities that need to be focused and allocation of resources during these unprecedented times, with the pandemic having added to an already beleaguered economy. Much is being said and written about the vaccine, but if it has to be given at reduced rate or preferably free to the poor, the EWS and the low income groups, who constitute 80 per cent of the Indian population, the government would need to shell out a whopping amount for the project. Who will foot the bill? Though the expenditure may be insignificant in the current fiscal, fund requirement in 2021-22 would be substantial and this should not be left to the mercy of the States.
The priority of public health in national policies, resources and investments has been missing. As is well known, the past year has shown unknown, communicable pandemic without any effective cure but managed through non-therapeutic measures like distancing and masks etc. in treating high infection volumes all over the country. The very poor public health infrastructure and investment deficit were severely exposed in the pandemic, including the hurried augmentation of capacities. The public health gap has been reviewed by the 15th Finance Commission whose chairman stated that public health expenditure needs to immediately increase from the current 0.95 per cent to at least 2.5 per cent. But it seems the government is not listening.
The financial distress of the Union government is well manifest but it is the States that are suffering the most. Though the economic situation would improve in the second half of the current fiscal, there is nothing to be complacent about. The government it appears is dependent on the private sector for everything and wants companies to come out with investment but they may not be in a position to do so. Investment has to come primarily from the government and the public sector.
Meanwhile, the ratio of private consumption to GDP has fallen and this suggests that the incomes of working people must have fallen even more than GDP in this period. The share of government consumption expenditure in GDP has also declined during the second quarter of the current fiscal. When GDP declines and government’s tax revenue goes down, its expenditure, a large part of which consists of salary payments, does not go down to an equivalent extent.
Analysts and economists have rightly pointed out that the orientation of the government’s policies is geared towards the corporate sector and the leading ones witnessed a jump in profitability even in the first half of the current fiscal when migrant workers and economically weaker sections suffered immensely. Some of them are still in a critical situation even now.
The attitude of the government is geared towards improving its image amongst the people through propaganda without bothering to think how the incomes of the marginalized segments can be increased. In this connection, it may be mentioned that, unlike most countries, India does not have a sector-wise perspective plan for the next 20/25 years and even the strategy to be adopted every five years. The political leadership appears to be only interested in changing and renaming schemes and dishing out political messages.
In the present situation, there needs to be careful planning, at least for the coming fiscal, but it appears that government bureaucrats and technocrats are not responding to the crisis situation or are under pressure to toe the political line. Even neutral economists are highly crucial of government policies, which they think are obviously not based on judicious logic.
It is a fact the country has been seriously challenged with social security and safety net coverage being severely limited due to a vast informal economy and increasing unemployment as also very high underemployment. As mentioned earlier, the lack of resources and limited fiscal support that India got during the severe pandemic was among the lowest in the world. Also, the existing channels and schemes through which immediate financial help could be delivered were inadequate; these being restricted to the counter cyclical job-provision programme. Surely, the government must be honest and get its priorities right. Heaven’s won’t fall if it heeds to legitimate demands of the people! — INFA