5 Questions, 9 Ministers

by Swarajya Staff - Jul 24, 2015 04:23 PM +05:30 IST
5 Questions, 9 Ministers

The 13-month-old Modi government has been subjected to unusually heavy media scrutiny. Yet, many questions have not been asked. Swarajya asks some fundamental ones

This Special Swarajya Project was spearheaded and coordinated by our Contributing Editor Seetha. We consulted various experts to frame the questions we have asked. Among them are:

– Shanthu Shanthraram, former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, who was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s.

Ramnath Narayanswamy, senior professor at IIM Bangalore.

Shailesh Pathak, executive director, Bhartiya Group, and fomer IAS officer, who chairs the Infrastructure Working Group for the BRICS Business Council, and is on the National Committees of ASSOCHAM, FICCI, CII and PHDCCI for Infrastructure, Capital Markets and Urban Development.

Saurav Jha, author and commentator on energy and security affairs.

The below are the ministers we’ve addressed questions to. Please click on the links to look at questions they must be answering.


Rajnath Singh – Home Affairs

Former president of the BJP Rajnath Singh could perhaps be visualized only as the country’s Home Minister once the party formed the Union government, given his seniority. Never mind that the “No 2” status seems to elude him. In the absence of incidents of terror attacks, he, helped in ample measure by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, must be doing a good job, while his deputy Kiren Rijiju comes across as a presentable face.

The most striking among Singh’s performances is the clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs, and we are not complaining. There was indeed a serious question as to why the so-called civil society found all developmental measures in India wrong when their sponsors sitting in the US and Europe had no issues with similar measures in those countries. On some fronts, however, we need more clarity.

1. Now, the NGOs will have to pledge that the money they receive won’t be used for activities that go against national, public, security, strategic, scientific or economic interest—with the government retaining the right to interpret what these would construe. This is a good enough stranglehold around forces inimical to India’s economic growth. But such a law would be seen as draconian by some friendly countries, allies and partners. Can the Bill’s phraseology be more specific and drafted in a manner to reflect India’s genuine concerns? Further, you may block foreign money. But can you stop the supply of logistics and manpower from NGOs to political parties?

2. What is the state of Indian knowledge of Dawood Ibrahim, India’s “most wanted”, and No 3 on the US’ list in 2011? Is he in Pakistan or is he untraceable? And, either in case of extradition or smoking out terrorists (as in the recent Myanmar ops), should we be talking openly about our plans? Why was the opposition not snubbed for its juvenile exuberance when they brought up the issue in Parliament? (Look to your left and use your smartphone to listen to Dawood speaking to one of his henchmen in Dubai.)

3. Swarajya’s columnist Anuj Dhar has been fighting the case for declassification of Netaji-related files for one-and-a-half decades. We back him for the facts about the fate of one of the greatest and bravest Indian political leaders, and we would like to know from you when you will honour the pre-election promise to bring out the truth—a promise you had made in Cuttack, his birthplace, at the feet of Subhas Chandra Bose’s statue.

4. True to his wont, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal will never let go of an opportunity to portray the NDA government as a hurdle in the capital city’s progress to the people. Under the law, you may have more say than him in the administration of police and land. But why is your communication channel defunct? When will you explain to the people that he is wrong and you are right? It is necessary because things happening in this puny half-state gets mainstream media animated enough to suggest you are behaving like a Big Brother nationally.

5. Your soundbytes against Maoists are well in place, but they are nothing different from those offered by your predecessors from the Congress—the discredited Shivraj Patil and Sushil Kumar Shinde, and P. Chidambaram. Your statement that you will “put in maximum efforts to ensure internal security” is doing nothing to deter the leftist militants, from eastern Maharashtra to parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. When are you going to move on this front?

5 Questions, 9 Ministers

Finance – Arun Jaitley

Finance minister Arun Jaitley came to his job amid extremely high expectations. The economy appeared to be in a shambles (it later turned out that it was not), inflation was high, public finances were out of kilter and both consumer and business confidence were at an all-time low, with people refusing to spend and companies loath to invest.

His first Budget was underwhelming. The expected Big Bang reforms were missing, but he made up for it by pushing through a lot of incremental reforms and proposing some crucial reform legislation (goods and services tax, increasing the foreign direct investment limit in insurance) over the next nine months, and capping it with a good, growth-oriented second Budget. But the promised miraculous turnaround in the economy is eluding him. He has been media-savvy but he has not been pinned him down on the following issues.

1. You have done a great deal of incremental reforms and some Big Bang ones. Your government has started to get stalled projects unstuck. Yet, nothing much is happening on the ground. Consumer confidence is still low. Capacity utilisation by industry is not improving, fresh investments are not happening. What are the reasons for this and what is the solution?

2. You managed to reduce the fiscal deficit last year to 4 per cent mainly through massive expenditure compression, with capital expenditure getting hit the most. Large public expenditure is needed to pull in private sector investment, but in the current year too, capital expenditure is less than 15 per cent of total expenditure. How, then, do you expect a pick up in economic activity?

3. Public sector banks occupy almost 70 per cent of the banking space and they are in a huge mess. There are large non-performing assets, many banks are headless, there is a huge talent crunch. What are you doing to protect the soundness of the public sector banks and what is the roadmap for recapitalisation to meet Basel-III norms on bank capital adequacy, stress testing and market liquidity risks?

4. Your policy on public sector disinvestment is a continuation of that of the UPA. You are only disinvesting to raise revenues and not to get the government out of business. You have said you will do some strategic sales but you refuse to specify whether this will extend to profit-making ones. Why should the government continue to run profit-making hotels? And if you are ready to sell loss-making ones, why not start with Air India and MTNL?

5. Sure, you are trying to clean up the tax system and to tackle the issue of black money. But most of your efforts are centred on giving more powers to the tax bureaucracy and increases the scope of harassment. The confusion about the income tax return forms shows that the tax bureaucracy is still supreme. And its unfettered powers affect everyone from the common TDS-category citizen to billion-dollar foreign investors. Why are you not taking steps to rein the babus in? Surely you know that the untamed tax bureacracy in India is the epitome of coercion and corruption?

5 Questions, 9 Ministers

Defence

Manohar Parrikar, former Goa chief minister, arrived at the Centre with a sterling record as an administrator. Also, given that his predecessor A.K. Antony was possibly the worst Defence Minister of independent India, who paralyzed the entire modernization process of our forces, gives him an advantage. Parrikar’s intelligence and competence cannot be questioned. He has already announced several major initiatives, but India is still far behind in the game of catch-up, and the urgency is growing by the month. Also, does he have the budget to do what needs to be done?

1. The raid into Myanmar signals a new resolve on the part of the government to undertake proactive measures that increase costs for those wishing to employ asymmetric methods against India. However, since such operations are only likely to grow in complexity and scope in the years ahead, do you think it is time to expedite the setting up of the proposed Special Forces Command? In addition to the Special Forces Command, there is also a longstanding requirement to create two other specialized commands—an Aerospace Command and a Cyber Command. China, as we know, has already made considerable progress in these two areas and maintaining deterrence in the years ahead requires India to symmetrically match their moves. Can we expect progress on these fronts as well? And if these commands are indeed set up, will they have independent budgets from the three services?

2. The capital outlay available to the Army is considered insufficient for it to carry out broadbased conventional force modernization. In that light, do you agree with the view that it’s time to consider rationalizing the Army’s strength by improving its teeth-to-tail ratio to free up resources for technological upgradation?

3. The Indian Air Force is struggling to achieve its sanctioned squadron strength and can do so affordably only by inducting homegrown jets in sizeable numbers. What are you doing to augment the production rate of the HAL Tejas? Is a foreign consultant being considered to improve its performance?

4. Before turning to China for two old submarines, Bangladesh had asked India to meet this requirement. While India has already started exporting surface vessels, do you think India should also look at the export market once it is able to augment its domestic submarine building capability through Project 75I and 76?

5. The private sector has been keenly waiting for progress on two key “buy and make” projects where 80 per cent of the development cost will be funded by your ministry. These are the Tactical Communication System (TCS) and Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programmes. These are urgent issues. Are you doing anything about this?

Commerce & Industry

When Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, took charge, the economy was slowing down, the current account deficit was galloping ahead, India was no longer the flavour of the season among global investors. Within weeks, she had to take on almost the entire world in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the issue of food security.

Two months into the job, Prime Minister Modi announced the Make in India programme, which is centred around her ministry. She has managed to get India some elbow room at the WTO, she has announced an ambitious foreign trade policy and Make in India has been making waves, at least in the media.

1. The Make in India programme appears to be more of a branding exercise as of now. What is happening on the ground? When even domestic industry is not investing in new capacities, how will foreign investors come and make in India?

2. You have said that the rupee is hurting exports; it is overvalued in terms of the real effective exchange rate. Do you favour depreciation of the rupee by the government? But will that not see the trade deficit ballooning, since the bulk of our imports are essentials?

3. The SEZs have become a real estate racket. Over 200 have not started, and 40 per cent of land acquired has not been utilized. Is it not time to do away with this policy?

4. It is a fact that India has not benefited much from the various free trade agreements and regional trade agreements it is a part of; it has not got as much market access as it has given. The government is moving ahead on some of these and also negotiating some mega regionals. But what will be the strategy to ensure that India gets maximum leverage in these?

5. Finance Minister Jaitley says the BJP is opposed to foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, but the UPA policy allowing it will continue. You have said you will seek a repeal of this and will not clear any proposal. But the Foreign Investment Promotion Board is not under your ministry. When will the government stop talking in two voices on this and when will this confusion end?

Railways

Suresh Prabhu, formerly a professional banker, took over as Railways Minister in November 2014. He was certainly one of the most competent ministers in the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government and introduced much-needed reforms in the power sector. This time round, he has a job that’s as tough—if not tougher. As a result of severe capacity constraints and distortions in relative allocation of resources, railways have seen a fall in the share of both passengers and goods transported over the last 60 years.

The non-optimal intermodal distribution (between road and rail) is estimated to cause a loss of about 4.5 per cent of GDP to the nation’s economy. It is essential that an attempt is made to reverse this declining trend in railway’s share or, at a minimum, to arrest it. If consistent economic growth of 7-10 per cent per annum is to be achieved over the next 20 years, there is a pressing need for unprecedented capacity expansion of the railways for both freight and passenger traffic in a manner that has not taken place since Independence.

And this will have to be supported by the required organizational changes.

1. Out of all the money that you promised will be raised by the railways—Rs 8.5 lakh crore through public-private partnerships, market borrowings and monetizing assets, how much has come in? And why will private investment come in if you don’t indicate a rate of return on investment?

2. Finance Minister Jaitley gave a quantum jump in gross budgetary support for the railways; it now stands at Rs 40,000 crore. That’s a lot of money. So why is no public capital investment happening?

3. You said you will decentralize decision making in Indian Railways and even delegated some powers that were centralized in your office to zonal offices. But there is still a lot of interference by the Railway Board. How do you plan to tackle this?

4. You have promised to start high-speed trains and bullet trains. That will take a great deal of money as well as time. How relevant are these when existing trains are running below the speed they can run at? What are you planning to do regarding this?

5. Is it not obvious and essential that Indian Railways should recast its accounts in a company account format consistent with accounting norms under the Indian GAAP? This is feasible since it has already been done on a pilot basis twice: first by the Railways Capital Restructuring Committee of 1994 and the Expert Group of 2001. Right now, does anyone really know the precise financial position of Indian Railways? Should you not do something about this?

Shipping, Road Transport, Highways

Nitin Gadkari, when he took over his job, was seen as the right man for it. He was responsible for the completion of several expressways in Maharashtra. He also has a keen sense of business and is always brimming with innovative ideas. When he took charge, the pace of highway construction was extremely slow, road projects were stuck for want of various clearances, investor interest was low because of this, and the functioning of ports was affecting the competitiveness of Indian exports.

In the past year, his ministry has been abuzz with activity. A Road Safety Bill has been introduced, a large number of stuck road projects have been cleared, nearly 8,000 km of fresh road projects have been given out, inland waterways have been getting a lot of attention and two massive new countrywide projects—Bharat Mala and Sagar Mala—have been announced.

1. India has the world’s worst record in road safety. You yourself have said that 30 per cent of driving licenses issued in India are false. Why not link all driving licenses to Aadhar in 12-24 months, and insist on simulator-based driving lessons and tests and compulsory refresher courses before issuing such Aadhar-linked driving licenses?

2. A large number of road contracts are stuck in arbitration. India has an extremely poor record in enforcing contracts (186th out of 189 countries, according to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report 2015). Given this, how will you execute contracts that you have signed or are signing?

3. Nandan Nilekani had submitted a report in 2011 recommending electronic toll collection on highways. The previous government had accepted the report but had not implemented it. How are you going to roll it out in the next 12 months?

4. National Highways Authority of India has in its possession land for provision of wayside amenities along national highways. These wayside amenities can be developed in 12 months. What are you doing about this?

5. What are you doing to reduce turnaround time in Indian ports to Singapore standards? You have been talking about corporatization of ports. But are you willing to give each port authority full autonomy and allow the 12 major ports to compete with one another without the government stepping in?

Agriculture

Radha Mohan Singh, minister for agriculture, is one of the few members of the Modi cabinet whose profile is in complete contrast with that of his ministry. The agriculture ministry is a high-profile one in any Indian government, but Singh keeps an extremely low profile, though it is hard to say whether this is by design or media oversight. Agriculture has never got the policy thrust it required under successive governments and the current agricultural stress the country is facing is a direct result of this. But most of the questions Singh has been faced with at the end of his first year on the job focused on farmer suicides and immediate problems of unseasonal rains and a possible deficient monsoon.

1. India’s budget allocation for agriculture is dismally low. Without proper resources, you cannot pull the agriculture sector out of the morass it is in. This is necessary because 50 per cent of the workforce is dependent on agriculture, even though it accounts for only 15 per cent of GDP. When will you get the budgetary allocation for agriculture increased to at least 8 per cent of the GDP?

2. Public investment in agriculture is skewed towards subsidies and even these are cornered by a privileged few. As a result, investment in research, irrigation, warehousing, and other agriculture-related infrastructure has suffered. What are you planning to do to set this bias right?

3. India once had a vibrant agricultural extension system that made the Green Revolution a grand success. That extension service has almost vanished. When will you kickstart a new agricultural extension system whch will help farmers steward their crops and animals in light of the latest technologies that are entering agriculture? When will the ministry of agriculture take the lead in adopting appropriate technology for agriculture?

4. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) is the world’s largest national agricultural research system. But it has stopped delivering to farmers a long time ago and is drowning under its own weight. To be globally competitive, it needs to be an autonomous research corporation. When will you take up truly transformative changes to the structure and functioning of this body?

5. Inter-state, and at times intra-state, barriers to agricultural trade have prevented farmers from selling their produce anywhere in the country. It is one of the reasons for poor profitability. What are you doing to create a national agricultural market and push the states into making this possible?

Power, Coal New And Renewable Energy

Piyush Goyal has had his plate full since he became a minister, with two crisis-ridden sectors—power and coal—laden down by legacy issues, in his charge. There were frequent power outages, new power projects were stuck, some of them for want of fuel linkages. Coal production was sluggish, thanks to a host of problems created during the UPA regime.

The issue of allocation of coal blocks was mired in controversy, and in less than three months of his taking charge of the ministry, the Supreme Court cancelled allocations of over 200 coal blocks.Goyal’s is one of the best-performing ministries of this government. Thermal power plants are getting coal; gas-based power plants have got revived; the country achieved its highest capacity addition during the course of the year; the coal block auctions were not only hugely successful but were also extremely transparent. But some basic questions remain.

1. The success on the coal side has put stress on the power front. Power plants bid very aggressively for coal blocks, but will be forced to absorb the cost of mining because of the proposed cap on capacity charge. Is this in the long-term interest of the industry?

2. You have said there will be 24×7 power in every home by 2019. But the Centre has a limited role; it is the financially-stressed State Electricity Boards (SEBs) which hold the key. Power plants are being forced to shut operations even during peak demand season because SEBs are not in a position to buy power. How can your promise become reality without addressing this?

3. Power for every home not only requires generation of power, it requires transmission grids to be strengthened, sub-stations to be set up, and so on. There is hardly any talk of this; the focus is only on capacity addition. Do you have a roadmap in mind for this?

4. You have huge targets for renewable energy. But, again, what is the roadmap for this? There are challenges of land acquisition, evacuation infrastructure and grid parity. You have spoken about renewable purchase obligations, but how will you enforce this on bleeding SEBs?

5. You have consistently refused to de-nationalise Coal India. The nationalisation of coal mines has not worked to the country’s advantage. What is the point in continuing with State monopoly? Isn’t it time to open up the coal sector?

5 Questions, 9 Ministers

Human Resource Development

Smriti Irani has been plagued by controversies right from the day she took oath. The first question that was asked was: How can someone who is not even a graduate be in charge of the Indian education system?

Things have gone steadily downhill since then. What with the appointment of RSS man Y. Sudershan Rao, who does not have a single peer-reviewed paper, as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research. The director of IIT Delhi resigned  last December over differences with her, as did nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar as Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Bombay. Meanwhile, Indian education—from primary to post-graduate—remains trapped in frightening structural and service-delivery inefficiencies. Here are some questions she needs to answer.

1. Few will dispute the fact that the educational challenge in India lies in transforming primary education. The reformist argument says: leave higher education to market forces but expand primary education by making it free and high-quality. This requires investment, imagination and boldness. What are your plans in this direction?

2. While nobody questions the need for regulatory bodies, how do you plan to combat corruption and inefficiency there? How can discretionary powers be made accountable?

3. Education at all levels needs to be thoroughly revamped in the country. You will agree that we have to move from focusing exclusively on analytical intelligence to including emotional, social, and spiritual intelligence in our curricula. Only such bold measures will inspire our youth to imagine, envision and aspire. How do you plan to incorporate these vital elements in your strategic plan?

4. Your government admits that the IIMs and the IITs have demonstrable potential to become recognized centres of global excellence and that is indisputable. They should go global, leverage the Indian diaspora and become globally competitive in engineering and business education. Yet, your proposed IIM Bill (which you are now supposed to be redrafting) aimed to, in the words of A.M. Naik, chairman of IIM Ahmedabad, make the IIMs “just another government department”. Is this the road to global excellence?

5. The Congress did not and does not have a compelling vision of an educational agenda for our youth. Can you spell out your vision of an inspirational, indigenous agenda, and one that is grounded in our realities, for the India that you want to create?

We would really like to know.

 

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