A plate full of agendas for the new government

The largest democratic exercise of the planet with more than 900 million voters, organized in seven phases has come to an end in India. Elections in India have always been a source of intrigue, fascination and astonishment for the rest of the world. Even the greatest democracy in the world the United States of America has only a third or fewer voters when compared to India. There of course have been some incidents of violence reported in states like West Bengal, where democracy was posed a challenge from goons.

Overall however, elections in India have been largely peaceful and have been a success from the mountains up north to the remote islands in the Indian Ocean and from the frontiers of the north east to the western border in Kutch. This massive fiesta of self rule truly exemplifies the opening words of the preamble to the constitution the “We the people of India…”. Mainstream media’s relentless coverage with hundreds of news channels both in English and regional languages have added the much needed garam masala of the sub-continent and made viewers glued to their television sets in spite of the IPL season coinciding with the election season.

BJP is all set to take reins for the next five years yet again and showed no signs of anti-incumbency. This perhaps is the first time a non-congress government is retaining absolute majority even during their second term. The Modi-Shah duo’s combination is likely to deliver again in elections 2019.  While there is much fan fare and euphoria among those who voted for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), there is a situation of concern in the rival camps viz. the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) headed by Shri. Rahul Gandhi. And the Mahaghatbandhan (MGB) is an enterprise with neither a leader nor a rudder. While it is easy to get carried away by the grand spectacle of the Indian elections, it also gives an opportunity to reflect and dwell upon what Prime Minister Modi and the ruling dispensation need to focus on in the near future when it comes to governance and policy.

  • Abolition of Article 370 and 35 A
  • Investment in agricultural innovation, technology and infrastructure
  • Revamping education at the university & school levels
  • Focus on health sector
  • Environmental awareness and clean energy
  • Encouraging local manufacturing, FDI and private players in defence, employment
  • Increased investment in Science & Technology and strengthening AI policy
  • Strengthen domestic security, law & order
  • Investment in urban infrastructure & intercity connectivity
  • Focus on heritage & cultural tourism

1) Abolition of Article 370 and 35 A

Article 370 conferring special status on the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has by far been the most controversial of the articles in the Indian constitution. The special status to J&K means that the state can have its own constitution in parallel to the constitution of India. The argument of people advocating the repealing of Article 370 is that, the presence of such an article is already divisive in nature. While J &K is an integral part of India, it does create and divides people on two camps, one voicing pro India and the other voicing pro Kashmir narrative. Borrowing from this nomenclature, the Indian side argues that Article 370 is a part of the Indian constitution and can be dissolved at any time by the government in power upon consensus in the Parliament of India.

While this is true, the Kashmiri stance on this is based on the fact that for the article to be repealed, there needs to be a consensus first in the Kashmiri constituent assembly on whether it can be repealed or not and the Indian constitution is bound by this. The state has witnessed major demographic changes, with hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits being driven out overnight of the state in a move of ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, Article 35 A deals with the domicile status of ethnic Kashmiris, who are the only ones eligible to own property or start a business in the state. These two articles mean that there can be no external investment for improving business in the state and create employment opportunities. This has led to a situation of encouraging able bodied youth of the state to pick up arms in Kashmir and rebel against the state.

The state is today in a situation of constant turmoil and incidents like stone pelting against the armed forces as they have been accorded the Armed forces special powers Act (AFSPA) to be applicable in the state. The only corrective remedy today is to dump both articles 370 & 35 A in order to usher in an era of development and empowerment in J&K. Local youth can find employment and the incidence of violence in the state will go down drastically. It would also be prudent to first isolate the issue of extremism in the Kashmir valley from the rest of the state i.e. Jammu and Ladakh, which have remained peaceful.

The repealing of the articles can also have major geopolitical implications vis-a-vis People’s Republic of China (PRC), which calls itself an “all weather ally” of Pakistan. This also would send a strong signal to PRC, that India would not tolerate any move that would violate its sovereignty in the form of the Chnia Pakistan Economic corridor, which passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which technically belongs to India, but is currently under Pakistani Occupation. Abrogating article 370 would also mean the diversion of media’s attention from J&K to the Chinese frontier which is becoming increasingly crucial and centring the discourse along India’s 3000 km long eastern border with PRC. This also is a move in forecasting similar demands for articles like 370 & 35 A by other states in India.

Hence, hastening public discourse around the above as well as initiating legal procedures for the same would greatly benefit India in the long term. India’s defence budget can primarily be focussed around neutralizing threats from PRC in the Himalayan region alongside the greater Indo Pacific region.

2) Investment in agricultural innovation, technology and infrastructure

For far too long Indian agriculture has lacked any meaningful structural reform and demands immediate attention. The agriculture and allied sectors contribute almost 15% to India’s GDP and the market potential in huge. Successive governments have focussed primarily on doling out money to farmers in the form of welfare schemes and have been a catastrophe when it comes to India’s fiscal policy. Thanks to climate change and related factors the situation has only been exacerbated. The failure of successive monsoons means prevailing conditions of drought and a slump in productivity. It is estimated that 30% of India’s arable land is undergoing desertification and needs to be addressed as a priority. India’s ever increasing population means more and more mouths to feed. This is not just an economic issue but is already becoming a major social issue to deal with. With agriculture business ceasing to be lucrative, there is a massive migration of rural Indians to the cities which is posing issues when it comes to urbanization. A more practical way to address this is issue is by providing avenues to farmers in order to encourage agricultural productivity by involving private sector in agriculture. Farmers need to be given access to markets abroad and export their products.

Any increase in minimum support prices coupled with monthly doles would only render a slump in productivity. For far too long the nexus of middlemen and politicians has ensured any reform from taking place in the sector. This is only crippling the system and the lobby needs to be demolished immediately. Parallelly, a more fundamental aspect that needs attention is the irrigation facilities. There has been a lot of noise on interlinking rivers in order to better conserve fresh water resources meant for agriculture, however, nothing of that sort has been initiated so far. The government within the first 100 days of inception needs to focus on policy related to irrigation and the much touted interlinking of rivers.

While, start-ups in the agro sector have received moderate attention, the investment into these start-ups is still not adequate. Agriculture related universities in India need to tie up with start-ups for innovative solutions for furthering the cause of the sector. This will also be a win-win scenario where employment opportunities can be generated. Focus on solar energy in the farm sector would mean that the farmer can rely on clean source of energy and the promises by state governments on free electricity to farmers can be reduced exponentially. Farmers can be incentivized to produce and contribute solar power to the grid during the summers and apart from the rainy seasons.

Ban on beef needs to be repealed such that meat exports can be enhanced which will be a viable source of income in the farm sector. Thanks to the involvement of start-ups that are equipped with geographic information systems (GIS), information regarding weather, water table, rainfall etc is available to farmers and the course of action can be prepared in advance.

3) Revamping education at the university & school levels

Educating its young population is a primary concern for a country like India. The demographic dividend can be exploited only when they are provided means through which they can adequately be educated. While there has been a significant increase in the number of IIT’s and IIM’s, which are the big ticket institutions, a mere increase in their number is not enough. Private sector universities, colleges and schools in smaller towns and rural areas need a complete revamp. It has been estimated that over 80% of India’s engineering graduates are not fit for employment, which is a staggering figure. Engineering colleges in smaller towns lack even the laboratory equipment meant for training students.

Even colleges offering graduate and postgraduate courses in computer science related subjects lack computers. This is the sorry state of affairs when it comes to higher education in India. Even, NIT’s do not fare much better compared to these semi urban and rural colleges. The research carried out in India’s technical institutions is still not application and product oriented. This forms the bread and butter of manufacturing sector in any country as the innovation comes from here. No wonder India’s contribution to GDP comes from the service sector instead of manufacturing precision devices and heavy industry. Most of the students graduating remain unemployed as they lack the right skills. This can be addressed through vocational training programs like Skill India, which has not lived up to its expectations.

The primary issue of concern is much deeper and should be addressed right after graduating school at the higher secondary level. Students need to be sensitized and provided counselling sessions regarding career choices that interest them rather than their parents. Yet another issue that needs to be addressed is the development of entrepreneurial spirit among youngsters. While there is some encouragement for start-ups off late, much more can be done. Internships and projects of students tying up with organizations and industry have to be prioritized, which is normally carried out in India just as a formality.

The education at the primary level is even more appalling. The ambitious plan of educating every child in India still remains a pipe dream and dropouts still exist despite schemes like the mid-day meal. Conditions in schools across rural India remain pathetic which look more like abandoned factories than schools. The Delhi model of improving facilities in schools run by the government needs to be applied elsewhere in the country. It can of course be argued that Delhi is an urban setting and hence the same model cannot be replicated in the rural areas. At least there needs to be a beginning somewhere. Teachers who work in government schools are themselves not trained enough to handle kids and teach them.

This has to be the primary step. Sanitation facilities like toilets and sanitary pads need to be provided in order to encourage participation of girls. The list is endless when it comes to primary education in rural India. Hence, it is imperative that the new government carries out extensive survey in order to comprehensively address education in rural and semi urban India.

4) Focus on health sector

Health is another sector that is languishing and needs focus. The first and foremost change that needs to be introduced in the upcoming budget is to increase the funding of health sector from 1-2% to 2.5 % of the GDP. Such investment over a period of time will ensure building of specialized government hospitals with more beds. While Ayushmaan Bharat has been a moderate success, there is a lot more that needs to be done at the grass root rural level. Most hospitals with specialized care restricted to urban areas and towns and there isn’t enough percolation in rural India.

Village dwelling folks even today are refused even primary medical care and are redirected to hospitals in urban areas due to the lack of trained staff or for the fear of further complicating the situation of the patients. Such structural issues warrant attention and skilling of medical personnel at the rural level would go a long way. In addition to this primary health centres (PHC’s) face a shortage of doctors, which can be addressed by employing mobile hospitals that keep track of all the records of patients, the treatment provided and the course of treatment in the future. India has only a million doctors who are registered practitioners to cater to a population of 1.4 billion people, which means there is one doctor for every 1400 patients.

The shortage of doctors can also be addressed by employing junior doctors under specialist supervision even remotely. Using big data and artificial intelligence related diagnostics can make a huge difference in health sector and needs to be implemented in a systematic manner. This is by far the only efficient way forward considering how big India’s population is and only technological tools can enable catering to everybody’s needs. Shortage of drugs and their delivery into rural India is still a concern even though India is one of the biggest producers of pharmaceutical products in India.

5) Environmental awareness and clean energy

As a part of the Paris climate change negotiations (2015) India is bound to reduce its carbon emissions to the expected target by 2030. India is all set to achieve its targets with an aggressive push on using solar energy and cut down fossil fuel emissions. While this is a positive sign, other sources of clean energy including wind and hydro electric power need to be explored. India’s targets of achieving 175 GW by 2022 through clean and renewable sources can be met only through a combination of everything. India so far has not focussed enough on harness hydro electricity which has a huge potential in the Himalayan region as well as in the Eastern and Western ghats.

While emphasis on solar and establishing the International Solar Alliance in partnership with France is commendable, the effort needs to be relentless. Even today most of the energy generated in India is by burning coal a major source of pollution. To meet the targets of producing 40% of its energy requirements from clean energy by 2030, India needs to harness its vast potential of wind energy. With 7500 kilometres of coastline India can be a major producer of wind energy. Also, policies forcing government organizations like sea ports and airports to invest in solar energy would go a long way.

Solar is a onetime investment which will reap big dividends. Incentivizing solar energy by integrating individual installations with the main grid as a lucrative source of income akin to Germany will compel the solar market and create the demand. Perhaps this will find the biggest fetching in the agro sector where farmers can be encouraged to put into practice such initiatives.

6) Encouraging local manufacturing, FDI and private players in defense

Indigenous manufacturing has always been an issue in India and despite efforts by PM Modi and the launch of Make in India campaign, there has only been a lukewarm response. While, some Chinese and Korean manufacturers of mobile phones have set up assembling factories in India, big ticket players have not yet arrived at the Indian stores. Defense deals in India have a very long gestation period and are still rendered crippled by the red tape involved. Unless there is a manufacturing base set up by big players like Lockheed Martin (LM), Boeing etc. it would be difficult to boost up India’s defense manufacturing sector.

There are proposals to indigenously manufacture F 21 fighter planes, by LM in India, which would certainly be a game changer. Similarly automation and techniques like 3D printing demand attention which would contribute significantly to India’s GDP share in terms of manufacturing. The use of AI will only increase productivity, but for India to really become a hub for manufacturing, structural changes in education, skill development, innovation and entrepreneurship needs to be achieved. Realistically speaking this would require the sustained efforts over a decade or more before the efforts pay off. However with the constant evolution of technology at a rapid rate it seems to be a Himalayan task for the new government, hence, it would be prudent to restrict the focus to specific areas that have a futuristic scope.

With the growing threat of PRC in our neighborhood India needs to have a strategic outlook when it comes to defense manufacturing and allow FDI be it Rafale jets or MIG’s. As has been the case previously the Brahmos missile jointly developed by India and Russia has been a tremendous success and is now being exported to other developing countries becoming a source of income for India. India’s space technology is not only effective in its intended purpose but is also cost effective. Hence, emphasising on space technology will propel India to be a leader among nations in the near future.

7) Increased investment in Science & Technology and strengthening Artificial Intelligence (AI) policy

As the adage goes “necessity is the mother of invention”, while India is well known for its frugal invention or jugaad (improvisation), it does not fare as well when it comes to technological innovation. While our scientists and engineers given an opportunity do wonders abroad the same is not being replicated back home. India’s contribution to Science is a meagre 0.85% of its GDP. While this is a big number in absolute terms when compared to other countries the per capita investment is very low. To begin with this percentage expenditure needs to increase to at least 1.2 % of the GDP. Incentivizing the home coming of India’s scientists and researchers from abroad needs to be carried out today. With the world especially the west focussing on AI based technologies; India should not miss the bus.

AI is a potentially game changing powerful technology that can alter the course of human destiny. AI will replace jobs and is already in the process of doing so. The government policy of #AIforAll is an appropriate initiative at the right moment, With the increased percolation of smart phones even into rural India and with the cheapest data rates in the world, the scope for the advancement of AI in India is very high. India also has a big pool of software engineers who are talented and could deliver the necessary requirements. Increasingly e-commerce and retail have taken off tremendously in India from payment related apps to food delivery and even online shopping. AI can touch every aspect of human life right from our kitchens to medical diagnosis to manufacturing as well as the battlefield.

Hence handling this technology with its associated threats becomes imperative. Powerful tools are needed to ward off any imminent threats to breaching data etc. Also the technology being relatively new is not well understood yet and the laws keep evolving with the evolving nature of threats, hence AI can be viewed as double edged sword ushering in maximum disruption. Creating an AI ecosystem in conjunction with private investors, universities and the government is a challenge and needs to be addressed by the new government. If harnessed in the right manner AI has the potential of contributing close to a trillion dollars to India’s GDP by 2035. Cybersecurity, Fintech etc. need to be the buzzwords for the new government and media discourse in India needs to be centred on this topic.

8) Strengthen domestic security, law & order

While technology is playing a major role in surveillance in urban India, this is not the case in rural India. India has one of the least numbers of police officers in the world, with just 129 men or women in uniform per 100000. Hence, maintaining law and order in rural India is a difficult task and the incidence of violent crimes where people take law and order into their hands is high. Even though India has a low reported crime rate in the world, incidents of honour killings, murder, rape and child marriages are a stark reality. Increasing surveillance and police force in rural India is a must and the new government needs to address this issue. Increasing police force also means the rising tide of violent religious extremism can be tracked down much earlier and can be napped in the bud itself.

9) Investment in infrastructure & intercity connectivity

The last 5 years have witnessed a massive overhaul of infrastructure development with expansion of the national highways and the railways (doubling of tracks, laying new tracks) as well as for the first time in independent India’s history, waterways. This trend needs to continue until saturation is achieved including in rural India. Electricity still needs to be provided to last few hundred villages which can be achieved in no time. While metro networks are being connected in big cities, the lack ridership for various reasons.

The only way to have cleaner cities, reduce pollution is to restrict the number of private vehicles along the metro corridors and encourage people to travel by trains in a clean and pollution free manner. Civil aviation to smaller cities has witnessed a boost and could have done better if not for the grounding some planes by private airlines like Jet Airways and IndiGo. Dedicated freight corridors for the movement of freight trains need to be constructed along the entire golden quadrilateral as well as the diagonals. This in addition to high speed rail networks along these routes would be a beneficial enterprise in the long run.

10) Focus on heritage & cultural tourism

It is rather unfortunate that even though India a country of such rich cultural heritage has not yet been able to provide enough to foreign tourists. The tourist spots of India are primarily located in Northern India and Kerala. Even the number of UNESCO world heritage’s sites in India is very low compared to the rest of the developed world. Tourism has the most minimal investment but pays rich dividends. Hence, endorsements regarding heritage sites and tourist places in the rest of the country apart from the traditional ones needs to be promoted as this will become a source of employment.

In conclusion, the new government needs to act on a war footing and identify priorities immediately after inception. The economy, education, health, agriculture and unemployment will form the barometer to evaluate the next government. The mandate if, as predicted by the exit polls is correct needs to be utilized to the maximum extent possible.

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