Congress manifesto: right to health is next on agenda

Grand old party of India renews some old promises and makes some new ones, but will Congress live up to its promises if it wins a third term?


manifesto 2014The Indian National Congress (INC) presented its manifesto for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections on Wedneday. The manifesto committee claimed the 48-page document was prepared after wide consultations by engaging millions of people, grassroots congress workers and every section of the society. Such consultations for drafting a manifesto have been held for the first time in the party’s history, committee members said.

Down To Earth takes a close look at the promises made in the manifesto and what experts and activists have to say about it.

Health will be a right

The Congress is the first national party to make public its manifesto for the 2014 parliamentary election. In it, INC has promised, among other things, making health the right of each citizen.

“We now pledge to enact a Right to Health to ensure that all people obtain easily accessible, quality health services, based on a combination of public provision and social insurance.” It further promises to increase health expenditure to three per cent of GDP. The Congress party has also promised to provide five state-of-the-art mobile health care vans in every district which would be equipped with x-ray and other equipment for health check-ups like mammography and blood tests.

The other promises include:

  • Expanding Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna (RSBY) to make primary, secondary and tertiary care accessible to beneficiaries;
  • Functional toilet in every school and every household;
  • Universal immunisation along with strengthening primary healthcare workforce, including accredited social health activists (ASHAs), auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs), anganwadi workers and community health officers;
  • 6 million new jobs in the health sector by 2020;
  • Three-year diploma course in public health.

Health experts and activists are sceptical about the party’s poll promises. Director of SAATHI-Cehat, Maharashtra chapter of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), Anant Phadke says these promises are meaningless. “How can the Congress party ensure right to healthcare while allocating only three per cent of GDP to health,” he asks.

In their 2003 and 2009 manifestos also, the Congress party promised to allocate two to three per cent amount of GDP to health but it was never fulfilled. This is the reason, no one will trust their promises, says Phadke.

The national co-ordination committee (NCC) member of JSA, Amit Sengupta, says that “right to health” is an empty phrase. Anyone can promise it, he says, while adding that the party should have spelt out the model to be adopted for ensuring right to health. He says this right includes a range of things like water, sanitation, gender issues and food security. The increase in allocation for healthcare to three per cent is likely to go to the private sector if the government continues following insurance model, he adds.

Water: recycled promises

Much of what the Congress has promised about the country’s water resources looks like old wine in new bottle. Most of the schemes relating to water and sanitation are a rehash of promises that the party made before coming to power in previous elections.

For example, the 2014 manifesto says that party will introduce a Bill to set up a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA)—a professional agency to conduct rigorous and time-bound environmental appraisals and recommend environmental clearances, where appropriate, in a time-bound and transparent manner. NEAMA was mooted way back in 2010 during congress minister Jairam Ramesh’s tenure as environment minister and was said to have been inspired by the US Environment Protection Agency.

Congress promises that it will put water conservation at the heart of the programmes for agriculture, rural and urban development. “This will be done by focusing all current programmes on augmenting water through decentralized systems, conserving water through all means and promoting recycling and reuse of water in all sectors. Water is a public right, but also a public responsibility. We believe that while pricing of water must ensure that users internalise ethics of conservation, it is also imperative that it be sustainable and affordable. We will promote these principles in all our programmes for water and waste management,” the manifesto reads.

Clearly, it is an indication that Aam Aadmi Party's free water scheme would not be continued if Congress comes to power. The manifesto also says that the party will take up the cleaning of rivers on a large scale. “The National Ganga River Basin Authority has begun the ambitious task of cleaning the Ganga River. We will use similar models of creating empowered, well-funded agencies to clean other major rivers in the country,” it says.

Criticising the manifesto, Manoj Mishra, convener of non-profit Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says, it should have included right to “healthy environment”. Otherwise, all the high-sounding words in relation to environmental conservation in the manifesto sound hollow and nothing more than a lip service, he says.

Mishra adds that while he welcome references to water conservation (most importantly that water is a public right and a responsibility), institutionalising environmental clearance mechanism through NEAMA and the proposed green national accounting, he finds it disappointing that the party continues to treat river cleaning as an end in itself, despite all previous failures on account of a poor understanding of the fact that rivers require restoration as eco-systems and not just their cleaning as in a “ganda nallah” (canal of dirty water).

Vision for rural India

The manifesto also presents Congress’ vision for rural India. It has promised to strengthen panchayati raj institutions, help form millions of self help groups (SHG), provide clean drinking water to every village and further connectivity to villages in the next five years.

Proposal for a national panchayati raj commission: A unique promise made in the manifesto is setting up of a national panchayati raj commission to ensure probity and transparency in the functioning of panchayats and their elected representatives and to make gram sabha responsible and responsive. It will also encourage panchayats to raise funds from own resources and use it accordingly.

Better pay for health workers: The manifesto has something for the millions of primary health workers who are paid very little. The party has promised adequate remuneration to anganwadi workers, ANMs and ASHAs. It has also promised them better working conditions as well as training.

The pet project of Congress led UPA-II government was the National Food Security Act. Encashing on this “major achievement”, the manifesto promises to strengthen it further by providing subsidised pulses and cooking oil to Antyodya Ann Yojana (AAY) beneficiaries, who are the poorest of the poor.

Water, roads: The manifesto has promised drinking water facility to every village and rural connectivity through the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) even to those villages which have up to 125 people. PMGSY is the flagship programme for rural road construction, started in 2000. At presently the programme provides connectivity to settlements with up to 500 people.

The manifesto also promises 100 per cent digitalisation of land records and aims to form 70 million SHGs in the next five years.

The party has claimed faster rate in reduction of rural poverty: the rate of reduction was 0.7 per cent per year between 1993-94 and 2004-05 which became more than three times faster at 2.3 percent between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

“The bench mark of poverty reduction data is nothing less than statistical fraud,” said Opposition BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Energy for all

After facing serious criticism over allocation of natural resources, including coal, the Congress party has now promised a special purpose vehicle for transparent, equitable and judicious development and allocation of natural resources in the country. “We will ensure that an independent regulator monitors the process of natural resource allocation in a manner that best serves the nation’s interest,” says the party manifesto.

The manifesto promises to increase energy access to 100 per cent in urban areas, and 90 per cent in rural areas under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna (RGGVY). At present, 94 per cent of urban India and 67.3 per cent of rural areas have access to energy. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had missed the target of providing one unit electricity to every household by 2012 under RGGVY.

Congress’s manifesto also promises a new thrust to renewable energy. Nuclear energy also figures prominently in the manifesto. It also promises accelerated implementation of its flagship programmes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission which has now entered its second phase, and National Mission of Energy Efficiency. It also mentions launching of the much-awaited National Wind Energy Mission.

Not much for forests and environment

The Congress manifesto promises to give “highest priority” to environmental protection. It says the party is “committed to sustainable development in its true spirit”. However, except for a mechanism to assess the cost of environmental degradation, the manifesto does not talk about any new measure for protection of the environment. It also does not talk about plugging the loopholes in the current environmental governance system.

The manifesto, however, does promise to continue most of its existing schemes, including those under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. It says the party will continue to push India’s interests at the international level on climate change and other environmental negotiations.

The party manifesto says it will enact a law for setting up a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA). What it omits to mention is that the current government was mandated to do this by the Supreme Court through an order in 2011. The government has so far failed to set up a national regulatory body for environment appraisal despite court’s repeated reminders.

On biodiversity and wildlife, the manifesto goes only so far as to say that the party “will continue to give highest priority to protecting the country’s biodiversity”. The manifesto says Congress would engage forest-dwelling communities in forest conservation and share the benefits arising from sale of non-timber forest produce including bamboo. The Panchayat’s Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 and Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, that empower the tribals and forest dwellers to assert their rights on forest resources, already have provisions to this affect. The implementation of these laws have, however, been plagued with problems. While most of the states have not formed rules to implement PESA, even 17 years after its enactment the rights of 1.3 million forest dwellers who have got land titles under FRA have not been recorded in the land records.

The Congress manifesto says it would adopt stringent measures “to ensure that Scheduled Tribes are empowered and brought into the mainstream”. It, however, does not talk about any specific step to remove the problems affecting the implementation of these laws.

One major step that the party has promised to take towards environmental protection is to launch a Green National Accounts by 2016-17. The manifesto says the scheme would ensure that the cost of the environmental degradation is clearly reflected in the country’s national accounts. It also promises to develop indicators on the state of natural resources. The manifesto also promises to provide access to clean cooking fuel to people across the country to decrease their dependence on biomass-based fuel.

Sharachchandra Lele, senior fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, says the manifesto should be lauded to a certain extent—it talks about solar energy, wind energy, tribal involvement in forest management, cleaning the rivers, water conservation, NEAMA and greening national accounts. “They have made a positive proposal about sharing of wildlife tourism revenues with local communities. But they should have made a more explicit commitment on implementing community rights under the FRA, and giving these communities a veto-power in the case of conversion of forest to non-forest by incorporating the July 2009 circular into the Forest Conservation Act itself,” says Lele.

He says these are a part of a larger problem: “the commitments made on the environmental front cannot be delivered unless the commitments made on the developmental front are reconciled with them. But that is completely missing. On the economic front, they promise 8 per cent GDP growth rate. So they have learnt nothing from development and environmental thinking: that GPD growth is neither sufficient nor necessary to bring about development (it can be a by-product of pro-development policies), and that such blind commitment to GDP growth ensures that mega-projects will be fast-tracked and the environment and communities directly dependent on it will suffer. In fact, it openly says that the "Cabinet Committee on Investment-Project Monitoring Group" is a success, when in fact this group has short-circuited environmental clearances!”

Tax waivers to boost exports, bring in foreign investment

Battling a decline in the manufacturing in its second term, the Congress in its manifesto has declared that it will lead the country to a 10 per cent growth in manufacturing. The party in its manifesto assures that it wants to improve India's “Ease of business” ranking to 75th from the present 250th position, even as it will help attract an investment of US $ 1 trillion over the next decade to upgrade India's power, transport and other development infrastructure.

According to the various estimates, India's manufacturing sector has been showing a steady decline since 2012. Data released by the Central Statistics Office earlier this year shows manufacturing output declining 0.2 per cent in 2013/2014 compared with 1.1 per cent growth in the previous year, dragging down the overall economy. Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, whose representatives met Congress' manifesto committee in January 30 this year, ahead of the announcement of elections, say implementation of goods and services tax (GST), better investment climate and relaxations for export-oriented business will help improve manufacturing.

Following FICCI and several other industry leaders’ advice, Congress in its manifesto has stated that all taxes, Central and state, which go into an exported product should be waived or reduced. “We also propose that there should be minimum tariff protection so that there is an incentive to manufacture goods in India rather than import them into India,” states the manifesto. Further, the party has made it very clear that it will pursue some of the models of development such as private-public partnership on much bigger scale, involving all core sectors except defence equipment manufacturing. On the other hand, the party has clearly indicated in the manifesto that the current account deficit (CAD) can only be financed through foreign investment. It states that there should be no room for any aversion to financial devices such foreign direct investment, foreign institutional investors, external commercial borrowing and other sources of foreign inflow.

The manifesto has been welcomed by industry bodies such Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). In a statement, CII president Kris Gopalakrishnan said: “CII is happy to note that the manifesto has pledged to restore India to 8 per cent plus growth rate within three years and boost manufacturing to 10 per cent with special emphasis on small and medium enterprises.” He further adds that this can be achieved by ensuring a globally competitive business and investment-friendly environment. Importantly for industry, the manifesto has committed to introduce the Goods and Services Tax Code Bill and a new Direct Tax Code Bill in Parliament and ensure that they are enacted within one year.

Manifesto promises to industry

  • A clear policy on tax treatment of foreign firms and merger & acquisition (M&A) transactions while ensuring that taxes are paid by multinational/foreign entities in the jurisdiction in which the profits are earned
  • 10 per cent growth in manufacturing and an increase in contribution of manufacturing sector's share to 25 per cent of the GDP by implementation of the National Manufacturing Policy. Create National Investment Manufacturing Zones as Greenfield, integrated industrial townships
  • Completion of the Industrial and Economic Corridors between Bengaluru-Mumbai, Chennai-Bengaluru and Amritsar-Kolkata
  • Encourage the allotment of land from existing land banks for priority sectors to provide an impetus to manufacturing
  • Create patent pool
  • Special tax incentives for popular branded hardware in the IT sector
  • Set up a national investment facilitation authority, a permanent body headed by the prime minister, and supported by a full-time secretariat, with explicit mandate of identifying delayed projects and resolving inter-ministerial issues to enable rapid and transparent approvals to large projects, especially in the infrastructure sector
  • Increase India's investment rate to 38 per cent to ensure more new investments are made to create jobs
  • Double trade of goods and services from US $ 1 trillion in five years

Right to affordable housing for poor

For the first time, the Congress party manifesto has included right to homestead, which implies affordable housing for the poor. This would mean creating infrastructure which will meet the huge shortfall of affordable housing faced by the poor in India today, especially in the urban areas. The manifesto also says the party will expand the reach of its urban renewal mission across the country.

According to the recently published data of Union Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation, India has a shortage of 18.78 million dwellings. Fifty-six per cent of the shortfall is for the economically weaker sections (EWS), while 39 per cent is for lower income households. The shortfall is expected to increase to 38 million households, according to projections of McKinsey Global Institute published last year.

Keeping these figures in mind, the Congress manifesto has promised right to homestead. Further, it promises that title deeds for land parcels would be given to those who can show that they having been in occupying the land in question for two decades. To improve sanitation, the party promises financial assistance under the Indira Awaas Yojana, a housing scheme of the successive Congress governments. It also states that Rajiv Awaas Yojana and Slum Free City Planning Scheme will be expanded. Rajiv Awaas Yojana is yet another urban housing scheme which will cover 250 cities by 2017. The party has also promised to expand the scope of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission with a focus of ensuring better sewerage facilities, roads and multi-modal public transport.

The manifesto admits that the cities across the country are suffering from decay and unless a new model of governance is created, the cities would become unlivable. Through the manifesto, it promises to extend the tenure of city mayors. “Mayors and municipal chairpersons have fully functional powers, so that they can operate as chief executive officers of cities with executive powers and responsibilities and not just ceremonial positions,” the manifesto states. Further the manifesto indicates plans to alter the political constituency in the urban areas to remove the issues related to under-representation. It states constituencies can be adjusted to reflect population changes in the cities.

Some thought to road and rail safety, at last

In its manifesto, the Congress has identified transport as one of the core sectors for development and modernisation. On the other hand, electronic connectivity and services have also been dealt with in an elaborate manner in the manifesto.

The party says it plans to launch an ambitious National Road Transport Safety Programme which will halve the number of road accidents within five years, if the party is elected to power. Safety in railways has also been dealt with, The manifesto says the party will implement Sam Pitroda Committee's recommendations to modernise Indian railways and make it safe for the passengers. It promises that all the cities with a population of more than a million will be covered by high speed rails.

Further, the manifesto states that Regional Rapid Transit Systems will be introduced in various busy corridors. The manifesto also says that the work of preparation of Feasibility Studies of Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) corridors for the three prioritized corridors—Delhi-Sonipat-Panipat, Delhi-Gurgaon-Rewari-Alwar and Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut—has already being done. Air travel is to be extended across the country as there is a huge demand for it. The manifesto also promises adequate road and rail connectivity to inland water and coastal terminals and non-major coastal ports across the country.

E-governance: In yet another ambitious move, the Congress party has declared that it will start a single window electronic clearance system to promote e-business in the country. It will create necessary regulations with approvals from states and the Centre to govern such investments and businesses. On the other hand, it has stated in the manifesto that it will ensure effective implementation of the India Inclusive Innovation Fund so that innovative enterprises can “profitably, scalably and competitively engage citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid”.

Aadhaar to be expanded: The Aadhaar or the biometric identity scheme introduced in the previous tenure of UPA, which has run into controversy with Supreme Court ruling that those without Aadhaar to be given all services, will be expanded according to the new manifesto. It states that it will ensure all Indians would have Aadhaar card if it comes to power. 'Aapka Paisa Aapke Haath' a government scheme for direct benefit transfer to Indian citizens, would be extended to all the government departments, the party's manifesto states

Further, the manifesto, with a view of improving public delivery mechanism, promises that 250,000 gram panchayats would be equipped with high speed broadband connectivity within 18 months of Congress coming to power. It has also promised that it will ensure the passage of the Electronic Delivery of Service Bill 2011, which will effectively deliver all public services, like passports, ration cards and driving licences to Indian citizens. For disaster management, the manifesto seeks to establish a rapidly deployable multi-protocol wireless communication system.

Other major highlights of the manifesto

Science and Technology: Increase annual expenditure on science and technology to at least 2 per cent of GDP. Encourage the corporate sector to invest in research and development

Gay rights: A law to ensure that consensual sexual relations between adults of the same-sex are not criminalised

Judicial systems: A cadre of public defenders to assist indigent litigants from different social backgrounds. Strengthen gram nyayalayas.

Foreign policy: War-torn Afghanistan: if the peace process remains Afghan-owned and Afghan-driven, the Congress party will work to support it

Indian National Congress: manifesto for the Lok Sabha Elections, 2014

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