There is a widespread perception of policyparalysis in the corridors of power. The two remaining years of the UPA's termis still not too short to reverse the current drift, but time is rapidlyrunning out. The damaged economy needs urgent fixing as does restoring thecredibility of an executive racked by scandals and the absence of a sense ofdirection. The people of the country long for clean, decisive governance. Butwhat is less widely recognised is that they also seek a leadership which iscaring.
When the UPA was emphatically returned to power in 2009, confoundingmost predictions, what decisively weighed with the people was not the pace of'economic reforms' or even economic growth, nor the successful negotiation ofthe nuclear deal. I believe that it was programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi NationalRural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which despite implementation flaws,still offered India's poorest people a dignified alternative to starvation,debt, bondage and distress migration, which most influenced the millions leftout of India's growth story, when they pressed the ballot button.
It is to the essentials of just and caring governance that the UPA mustreturn if it has any claim to a third term of power. To begin with, it must endthe disastrous symbolism of a government willing to let food rot in itswarehouses, or export it at subsidised rates, but not distribute it to masseswho toil but sleep hungry and malnourished. The first and highest priority ofthis government must be the early passage of the Food Security Bill.
All or most households should be covered by subsidised food. The lawwould also guarantee feeding and nutrition programmes for small children,school meals, universal maternity entitlements, destitute feeding and soupkitchens for subsidised cooked meals to migrants and homeless persons. Anyfurther procrastination will render impossible the rolling out of the compleximplementation architecture of this ambitious programme of social protection,in the two years left for this government.
Equally important is to address the distress of farmers, who continue tolanguish in poverty and despair, manifested in unabated farmers' suicides. Therevival of agriculture would require basic income support and insuranceespecially for the small and middle farmers; a massive expansion of farmcredit; a guarantee of purchase of all farmers' produce at remunerative minimumsupport prices; and a major expansion of watershed development programmes. Itis also imperative to revive the agenda of land reforms for the landless poorand tenants.
Decisive action is needed on corruption to build early consensus withthe political opposition and diverse citizen opinion for the early passage of alaw to establish a strong, independent and accountable lokpal, along with acomprehensive basket of anti-corruption measures. These include long-delayedelectoral, administrative and judicial reforms and measures for effectivegrievance redressal at the levels of the village and city settlement.
There is also need for extensive backroom lobbying with the UPA, theLeft and the BJP, to mobilise sufficient support for early passage of theWomen's Reservation Bill, and a comprehensive law against sexual violence. ForScheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the government must establish ironcladsystems to ensure sufficient flow of budgetary resources to enable them tobridge the development gaps. A strengthened SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Actwould better protect them from continued violence. A special programme would bein order to guarantee basic services of clean water, sanitation, child-carecentres and roads to all SC and ST settlements.
In addition, tribal people desperately require effective amendments andimplementation of the Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to ScheduledAreas) Act, which restores their control over their lands, natural resourcesand governance systems. They would also benefit from the early passage andimplementation of laws which give a much fairer deal to persons affected anddisplaced by land-acquisition and mining.
The UPA promised in 2004 a law to prevent communal violence, but it hasnot been able to muster the political nerve to introduce a strong bill whichwould make public officials accountable for failures to protect people incommunal riots. Other measures for religious minorities should includeuniversal scholarships for all children from religious minorities excludingwealthy groups; a special programme of residential schools, including forgirls, in all minority blocks; and guarantee of basic services in all minoritysettlements.
In India's troubled conflict areas, a healing touch would require a newcommitment to human rights, including by ending and punishing encounterkillings and torture, and abrogating laws like the Armed Forces (SpecialPowers) Act, Public Safety Act, Disturbed Areas Act and other preventivedetention laws. This would spur a new mood of reconciliation in these states.
There is need for substantial increases in investment in public healthservices (and not private health insurance); and a programme for free oraffordable generic medicines, building on the successful experiment inRajasthan. The early passage of an improved Social Security Bill forUnorganised Workers, a universal old age pension; and unconditional incometransfers to families of persons with disabilities, will reach out to otherdisadvantaged groups. For the millions who migrate to cities, programmes andlaws which guarantee land tenure rights and basic services to slum residentsand to street vendors, would enable them to escape the violence, Stateoppression and squalor that characterise the lives of the urban poor.
What ordinary people hope from their governments is not just that theywill control prices, promote economic growth and offer clean governance. Theyexpect support in their daily struggles to build a life of dignity, justice andultimately hope. It is this expectation that governments, once elected, mosteasily forget.
Harsh Mander is a member of the National AdvisoryCouncil. The views expressed by the author are personal.