Promise of corruption-free India: Low performance on constituting Lokpal, protecting whistleblowers

corruptionThis is the executive summary of the Citizens’ Report on two years of NDA government, prepared by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNDA), a national campaign to hold the government accountable for its promise to end poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. The report was released at the Constitution Club, Delhi, on May 23.

When the civil society came out with its review of the NDA government’s first 365 days in office around this time last year, it consciously chose to give the government a long rope. We said the completion of the first year was much more about “symbolism” than real changes and forward movement. This was the right course to take because at that time, contours of the new government’s policy preferences—seeped as they were in election-time promise of restoring “good days”—were still in the making. We argued that 365 days, out of a mandate for 1,826 days, constituted a rather small period for fair assessment. Now that we are tracking the NDA dispensation’s record for good 731 days, the earlier ‘defence’ of it being a new regime wouldn’t stand as strongly as then.

The overwhelming mandate to the NDA government in 2014 is based on its promise of ‘achche din’ and ‘sabke saath and sabke vikas’. As the government is approaching mid-term, the socio-economic impact of its policy decision is becoming more evident. This report in particular is concerned about the government’s performance in promoting life with dignity and opportunities for the most marginalized sections in the country. It focuses attention on how the plans and programs of the government have impacted the lives of nine constituency groups on the periphery of our society. Sixteen thematic areas are reviewed through their eyes.

The promise of providing a corruption-free India has met with low performance on constituting the Lokpal, protecting whistle blowers and creating a robust grievance redress mechanism. On the other hand the proposed amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act may victimize vulnerable citizens who are seeking their rights and entitlements.

The government’s budget allocation in 2015-16, the major thrust for development is on investment in infrastructure and housing projects in both rural and urban areas. Data analysis shows allocations to most social sector fell short or had marginal increase which does not address the critical concerns in health, education, civic amenities. There is no sign of improving the low tax-GDP ratio that can contribute to increased investments. The stress on private providers in core areas of health and education stands to undermine these tottering public services.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act highlighted as laying the foundation for an educated India is on the verge of major regressive amendments. Allowing children below 14 years to work undermines the RTE Act and all efforts to improve education among the marginalized children. There is little clarity on the New Education Policy which is on the anvil. Health care continues to be poorly resourced at among the lowest globally. Further, the strategy of providing health care through promoting private insurances does not go to build a healthy and vibrant nation. One of the distressing areas is the lack of a comprehensive plan to address malnutrition among children in the age group of 0 to 6 years.

Child protection suffers from many casualties including poor budget provision, non-implementation and recent amendments in the Juvenile Justice Act. Despite the high focus on children and young people as the future of India, the budget cut for children of 29% in 2015-16 has been the highest ever. On the question of youth, the outcome of the government’s ‘Skill India’ push for “education, skills and job creation” is still not very evident. The target to be able to train over 40 crore people by 2022 is an ambitious one.

The civil society space to function independently in highlighting the concerns of the most marginalized sections, reflecting current policies and provisions in its impact on the vulnerable sections is being limited through political and administrative impediments. The space to build synergy and complementarity between people and the government is shrinking at a time when educated young people from the socially excluded communities are engaging more actively in the civil society spaces. The threat of particular political ideologies encroaching upon the civil society space is of concern.

Coming to specific socially excluded communities, the passing of the amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act is a welcome step. Recognition of Dr B R Ambedkar as the architect of the Indian state is rightly placed and long overdue. However, the continued poor allocation and implementation of economic provisions under the SCSP and TSP holds the communities in the vice of poverty and underdevelopment. Of particular concern has been the impact on higher education where SC/ST scholars are forced to give up their studies and even end their lives. The flagship Swachch Bharat Abhiyan does not seem to have provisions to improve the lives of Dalit Safai Karmchari communities.

Safe-guarding the environment is belied by various actions of the government; in particular the recommendations of the high level committee set up to review important environment, forest, wildlife and pollution acts. The rights and genuine concerns of the people, particularly Tribal communities are overruled through the misplaced trust on private parties and their development investments. There are dangerous trends in the proposed Environment Law Management Act (ELMA) and the Environment Law Amendment Bill 2015.

Crop loss, mounting debt and acute drought situation continue to drive farmers to commit suicide in states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The government could have done better to address the critical situation of rural distress. The country expects that rural insurance schemes like Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and Bhartiya Krishi Bima Yojana do provide the necessary succor to farmers. Agricultural credit, rural electrification and a thrust on increasing the irrigation cover are major challenges that need to be addressed by the government.

It is reassuring that the MGNREGA programme is being continued. But the land question remains unresolved and the final shape of the Land Bill would be known only after the government’s stand towards the outcome of its examination by a committee of Parliament. The balancing act that the government eventually does between industrial development and market growth on the one side and the rights of the vulnerable sections on the other has to stand the test of time.

Similarly, the impact assessment of the government’s Make in India push—which intends to transform the country into a global manufacturing hub—is being eagerly awaited. Despite many commitments, the anticipated foreign investment is not evident. By now, however, there is no doubt that the government has opted for trade and a market-driven economy as its core mantra for development. Concerns, therefore, over livelihood of small landowners, farmers, rural households and economically weaker sections are not totally misplaced.

An overhaul of the urban landscape, too, continues to pose a serious challenge. The government has stressed that the Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana have been announced with a concomitant change of approach—to bottom-up from top-down—for effective implementation. Assessing this would turn out to be a tall order because injecting Rs 3 lakh crore to create 100 Smart Cities and 500 AMRUT cities over the next five years is no small promise. Nor is the construction of 2 crore affordable houses across 4,041 statutory cities and towns over the next seven years.

If verbosity were a virtue, the NDA dispensation has definitely lived up to it in its second year. This becomes all the more evident because the relative “silence” of the earlier UPA regime had come under much criticism. But in a country like India, the spoken promise has often failed to match the work on the ground. It wouldn’t perhaps be fair to brand Prime Minister Modi’s government as one that talks at the cost of delivering¬—not yet, that is. But it will do the government a world of good to start calibrating its promises on the scale of soaring expectations that had granted it a clear majority to govern after a long hiatus of coalitions. This very measure is the sole criteria that the NDA government must qualify through its remaining years in office.

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