Hurdles in sarkar-citizen interface

At a book release last week, Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley referred to the new Narendra Modi principle that is driving the Union Council of Ministers: na sowta, na sowne deta (I don’t sleep; I don’t let others sleep).

This irreverent extension of the Modi mantra—na khaata, na khane deta. (I don’t take bribe; I don’t let others take a bribe)—originated in Gandhinagar around 2007, but it has found ready takers among ministers that find themselves thoroughly overworked.

Jaitley, in particular, knows the frenzied pace that the Prime Minister has set for himself and his colleagues. The Jan Dhan Yojna, aimed at the eradication of what Modi evocatively described as “financial untouchability”, has set the standards by which many of the future ‘schemes’ of the Modi sarkar will be judged.

The opening of 1.5 crore new bank accounts in a single day wasn’t something that just happened: it was preceded by meticulous bandobast. Apart from the finance ministry that interacted with the public sector banks, Modi held at least eight separate meetings with the officers of concerned departments and he personally addressed an email to nearly six lakh bank employees explaining why the initiative was important.

Whether the programme of financial inclusion will contribute towards to poorer Indians becoming nominally more empowered is still an open question and will also depend on the attitudes of bank officials in the coming days. However, the Jan Dhan Yojana does indicate the difference in philosophy between the present government and its predecessor.

For a start, this was not another way of handing out freebies to all sundry. Nor was it a variant of the notorious loan melas of the 1980s and 1990s, where the politically connected took ‘loans’ that many never intended repaying.

Yes, there is a one-time subsidy of Rs 90 per account holder for a Rs 30,000 Life Insurance Policy. But the premium is paid by the government for only one year. The subsequent premium payments will have to be met by the account holder. In short, the government is giving a leg-up to the poor and exposing them to the benefits of self-funded financial security for themselves and their family.

I would have imagined that the distinctive approach of the government would have merited a thorough discussion by the media and the large army of policy analysts. And more so because it roughly coincided with the audit of the first 100 days of the Modi Government. Unfortunately, the delights of whipping up passions over ‘love jihad’ are proving irresistible to a Fourth Estate that is still resentful at not being included in the PM’s overseas visits.

At the same time, however, there will be considerable discussion of the latest GDP figures that showed the Indian economy growing at 5.7 per cent, the highest growth in nine quarters. Such a discussion will no doubt stress that the growth was preceded by the post-election stock market surge and a belief among Indian corporates that the government will focus on improving the ease of doing business.

From a political perspective, the Jan Dhan Yojana is more significant since it has a potential bearing on the quality of life of individuals and their families. Compared to that, the GDP figures may quite rightly be seen as an abstraction—as the Vajpayee Government discovered to its cost in the 2004 election. For this government, elected on the lofty promise of ushering acchhe din, it is the small changes that must accompany the big bang reforms that many economists wish had been included in Jaitley’s first Budget.

In the past 100 days, the government has taken a few measures that have a direct bearing on the lives of ordinary people. First, there was the announcement that self-attestation, rather than notarised copies will suffice for routine business. Secondly, it was announced that a family had the right to 12 subsidised gas cylinders in a year and not one each month. This accommodates seasonal variations. Thirdly, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has announced a bold plan for getting rid of Regional Transport Offices (hotbeds of harassment and corruption) and allowing routine things such as driving licence renewals to be done over the internet. The sooner Gadkari’s plan is operationalised throughout India, the better. In the same vein, the finance ministry must begin a centralised KYC scheme that negates wasteful and duplicated paperwork.

Although 100 days is a media event, any government will be judged by its record in transforming the quality of life in five years. This obviously means that the economic growth of India must be maintained and speeded up considerably. However, just as important is ensuring that the interface between the government and the citizen (or business) is streamlined and made hassle-free. This involves constant monitoring and ensuring that the de-bureaucratisation programme is implemented. In Kolkata last week, I met small businessmen in the leather business who complained about needless 3-4 week delays in clearing goods from the port because regulations stipulated a report from a government laboratory in Chennai.

Another importer of organic fertilisers showed me correspondence that had been unanswered by a government laboratory in Faridabad. This is what is harassment on the ground and without whose removal, Modi’s ‘make in India’ project will flounder.

On a personal note, I can only cite the example of my wife who went to submit some pension papers for her aged mother. She was told that self-verified documents aren’t acceptable. The official told her: “We haven’t yet received any such notification.” Such transmission losses are avoidable.

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Free Press Journal