Old agenda with new imagination
Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE

Old agenda with new imagination

The new government must rebuild trust by being tolerant to ideas, opinions and information. It needs to strengthen ground-level institutions because participatory democracy can ensure development delivery. In this age of climate risk, the government also needs to re-engineer development to make it inclusive, affordable and sustainable

The agenda for the next government is the old one, but with a fundamental difference. The fact is that the list of priority action areas remains the same. We have unfinished business when it comes to virtually everything—from energy to water and sanitation to food and nutrition to, of course, health and education. We know that the government has schemes in place and budgets allocated for all these issues. We also know that ensuring the welfare and well-being of people is a work in progress. During this election, as journalists fanned out to listen to the opinions of voters—perhaps the only time when their opinions count—we heard that unemployment is a major concern; lack of clean drinking water and sanitation tops the agenda; the energy crisis is still wicked as the price of the LPG cylinder is unaffordable and electricity unreliable. Farmers are still distressed. So, a lot of work still needs to be done, and in areas that the last government said it had checked off in its to-do list.

This should not come as a surprise. India is a vast country, with a massive deficit in governance. The last mile for any government scheme is about making sure that it reaches people—not once but every time. At the same time, we are seeing the impact of climate change. Our data shows that every day, some or the other part of the country is being battered by at least one extreme weather event. This has huge implications for development programmes—unseasonal and extreme weather lead to more droughts, floods and loss of livelihoods, putting additional strain on the resources of the government. This means that development will need to be more efficient and delivered at scale and speed.

But for all this to change and more, the next government’s new agenda—and I say this even if the new government is the old one—must be different in the following respects.

First, it must be based on rebuilding institutions for increased feedback and accountability. Anybody who has a differing perspective is not an enemy of the state. Alternative information is not dissent or targeted criticism of the government. These sources of news and analysis must be seen as part of the tapestry of development. The more we learn about what is working and what is not, the more governance improves. Currently, most differing voices have been silenced—perhaps not deliberately but through the unsaid that makes it more acceptable to be acceptable if you have things that the powers want to hear. It is like an echo chamber where only cheerleaders thrive. In my view, this only makes a government poorer—they hear nothing and learn little. So, the agenda for the government-to-be is to be open—this is not about inclusion in government committee rooms but in the tolerance of information, ideas and opinions. Rebuilding trust is key—not just for schemes to succeed but also for societies to thrive.

Second, we need institutions for new India. Over the past few years, most conventional institutions have been deliberately, or by sheer neglect, allowed to decay. The reason, the government may tell you, is that these agencies were not doing their jobs well; they needed to go. But the fact is that nothing has been done to replace the key functions that these institutions are required to play. Take the case of agencies set up to control pollution. They have become mute and meaningless. Maybe because when they had power, some indulged in making money from the business of combating pollution. But the fact is that combating pollution needs institutions that can apply deterrence with accountability and have the ability to navigate inconvenient and tough decisions. This is completely missing today. So, it should not surprise us that we have more pollution, not less, all across our rivers and in the air.

For this to change, we need two next-generation reforms. One, we need to strengthen the ground-level institutions, where local people take part. We need participatory democracy to make development programmes work. It is now over 30 years since the country passed the 74th and 75th amendments to the Constitution to empower people’s institutions—the Panchayati Raj in rural areas and the municipal system for urban India. We have also experimented with deepening democracy through strengthening of gram sabhas—village assemblies. But all this is unfinished work. We have much more to do to give control over natural resources to village and city governments. We need them to manage funds and schemes; to create green jobs; to invest in natural resources for livelihoods. We need to celebrate the noise of democracy.

Third, we need imagination in the design of development schemes. For too long, governments have been caught between the welfare approach—which is often dismissed as the handout—and the capitalistic minimum approach. In my view, this age of climate risk needs a new narrative. The government needs to rework and re-engineer development so that it is inclusive, affordable and, thus, sustainable. This means reimagining the way we work in almost every sphere—from the supply of clean water, so that it is not resource- or capital-intensive, to the access to energy so that it is clean but, most importantly, affordable. This will require changes in design and then in delivery. We need a new development paradigm that can work for the Planet, but for this, it needs to work for every last person. This, then, is where we need the focus and attention of the new or old-new government. This is our common agenda.

Down To Earth