Message to BJP: Include the Poor and Elderly
To move India forward, Narendra Modi and his BJP must follow a new script – protecting the poor and more accountability.
- The BJP is losing some of its steam. While more Indians still put their faith in the BJP than in any other party, Indian voters are notoriously fickle.
- For all of Narendra Modi’s past success, his BJP must follow a new script -- protecting the poor and elderly and creating a culture of public sector accountability.
- It is shocking that 40% of children in India remain malnourished – and not all of them are poor.
- Poverty is sticky and disadvantages entire families. Poor people’s children generally are barely able to keep body and soul together.
- Tough love is necessary to improve India's public services. We should sanction those who fail to use the fiscal resources put at their disposal.
Thus far, the BJP’s formula for success has primarily relied on a mix of a more effective state and muscular nationalism, fanned by Hindu revivalism and paired with an assertive foreign policy stance. This strategy has paid rich dividends politically.
Even so, the BJP is losing some of its steam. While more Indians still put their faith in the BJP than in any other party – not least because of its charismatic Prime Minister, Narendra Modi – Indian voters are notoriously fickle. A politician is only as good as the last bag of goodies delivered to supporters.
Casting a wider net
The BJP therefore needs a strategy to generate goodwill in a more sustainable manner. One option is to systematically address the concerns of those who have fallen through the cracks of the open-economy model India has followed since the 1990s.
Of course, in doing so, the BJP will have to distinguish itself from populism and vote buying, which is the hallmark of a failed politician. Here are some options:
Protect children from malnutrition
While India has thankfully smashed the pre-1980s 4% annual growth rate (the so-called “Hindu rate of growth”), this is not enough. The past period of sustained growth reduced poverty in the country to around 20%, but with an additional 20% teetering on the edge of the abyss of poverty.
Moreover, it is shocking that 40% of children in India remain malnourished – and not all of them are poor. Unless a child is adequately nourished in the first eight years, there is a high likelihood of permanent damage to its brain.
Why environmental protection matters so much
It is high time to do more than talk rather glibly about a “youth dividend.” Clean air (to increase lung capacity), clean water (to avoid diarrhea) and micronutrient rich food can guard against stunting.
Unless this is done, we are continually handicapping around 90 million kids, or 7% of our population, from childhood onward.
Spending today, on these three inputs – clean air, clean water and nutritious food – is well worth the avoided economic cost of perpetually sustaining a stunted population of around 500 million.
Do the math if you are not convinced. Consider also that, looking ahead, it is the quality of the human brain and not brawn that will determine if a nation succeeds or fails.
Social protection for the elderly
Second, experts agree that the capacity of the average human brain to learn and innovate decreases sharply with age. Initiatives like Start up India, Make in India, Mudra – loans for MSEs (medium and small- enterprises) all benefit those under 50 years of age. They retain the vitality to do new things.
For those above 50, who have been thrown out of jobs or others who have never held a job, there is little on offer, except the back-breaking NREGA which provides an assured 100 days of unskilled, manual work for anyone willing to put in the hard labor.
SKILL India is also not a solution for them because failure rates in adult education are very high. In India, around 6% of the total population or around 80 million people are above 50 years of age, and poor. They were never in a position to save for their old age.
Also, poverty is sticky and disadvantages entire families. Poor people’s children generally are barely able to keep body and soul together.
Cash benefits for this set of 80 million Indians, at a paltry Rs 1,000 ($ 15.5 ) per person per month would cost Rs 1 trillion per year ($ 15.5 billion).
A progressive annual cash allocation, increasing with age, as the likelihood of doing gainful work decreases, would be sensible. This is expensive, but an inevitable cost of our past public transgressions.
Basic health care for the poor
In addition, India’s poor must get free basic medical insurance schemes. This scheme must allow them to seek in and out-patient treatment at any registered clinic for free, just like the middle class and rich do.
This way, the elderly poor will cease to be a burden on their children. Moreover, this is something the government is capable of doing. The cash and other benefits for supporting girls in childhood have worked well. So can a benefits scheme for the elderly poor.
Respect land ownership rights
Third, economic liberalization, while creating enormous private wealth, also generates inequalities. There are losers who fall through the cracks.
Take India’s historic failure to provide a credible commitment that land acquisition would “cause no harm” to land holders. The common apprehension is that bank financed land acquisition incentivizes excess acquisition for speculation. It also robs the land holder of the ensuing value creation.
This creates resistance and fear. Even the latest version of the Land Acquisition Act is backward looking. It merely seeks to “compensate losers.” It should be forward-looking instead.
For that reason, the Act ought to provide explicitly for “sharing of the ensuing value creation” between the land holder, the project developer and the government. This can be achieved using a Participative, Public, Private Partnership (PPPP) model.
This is all the more important as India is land starved. The ownership of this valuable asset must be respected as an equity contribution to new projects, with pre-defined, time bound returns, insured by the government.
Penal sanctions for public delinquency
Some tough love is necessary to improve our public services. We should sanction those who fail to use the fiscal resources put at their disposal.
If we legislate a suitable “Public Services Act,” it should attach criminal penalties to public actions which result in public harm, whether this is due to lack of due diligence during the budget procedure or the implementation stage of projects.
India’s basic problems
Delinquent officials must be held accountable if hospitals negligently harm, not cure patients. The same applies if defective public buses, trucks, aircraft, ferries and ships are allowed to operate, resulting in deaths — or if shoddy public construction causes death or disability.
Only if we manage to take that step toward official accountability can the right public service culture and moral fiber be created that is so necessary to deal with the ceaseless challenges in public life. It cannot be a one-way street, with only citizens serving the state.