With the return of the Modi government on an even stronger popular mandate, the public discourse has now moved to newer ideas to launch a new, historic phase for India. The broad thrust of the government programmes would be to provide better governance and accelerated economic growth to benefit all sections of our increasingly aspirational society.
The following three suggestions cover certain critical socio-economic and governance aspects of our national life. The biggest challenge is uncontrolled migration from villages to the cities over long distances and across the length and breadth of India. Cities, which are the dynamos for India’s growth, thus become overcrowded.
The critical requirement is to reverse the migration flows through the building of expressways. The successful reversal of such flows can launch India on an accelerated path of growth. It will facilitate better governance of the cities which are presently becoming ungovernable due to severe population pressure, inadequate infrastructure, pressure on adjoining farmland for spatial urban expansion and environmental degradation.
This has created a vast underbelly of societal crime in the cities because of the conditions of living and the atomisation of families as social units. Although the infrastructure in the cities, not just in the megalopolises like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, but even in medium size towns, is getting better, it is always catching up rather like a dog trying to catch its tail!
Whilst the problem of urban governance and of the delivery of the municipal services does not get significantly better, the gap between the infrastructure quality in the cities and villages is constantly widening and, thereby, further adding to the pressure of migration to the cities.
The current process and dynamics of urbanisation, actually, means that even our economic growth remains demographically lopsided and unbalanced. At the same time, the agricultural sector gets poorer with shrinking rural opportunities for more diverse pattern of skills and which needs to be maintained by massive financial subventions for an uneconomic and unsustainable agrarian sector today.
Even today, nearly 64 per cent of the Indian population is dependent on near stagnant agriculture or on related activities. The current government policy of building high-profile expressways over short distances has generated its own problems.
First, these projects require huge capital costs with considerable time-overruns and their return is not, often, realistically calculated for such capital expenditure, mostly, from the private sector. Then, there is also the fear amongst the rural population that their meagre landholdings will be taken away for construction of expressways for connecting major cities, bringing little economic growth in the surrounding countryside.
This is combined with the pressure from the builders who create townships along these expressways. The intensely competitive politics, around such land acquisitions, complicates the process of construction of expressways the necessity of which for the country’s growth is unquestioned.
The major conundrum, as far as the reversal of migration inflows into the cities is concerned, is for the government to so contrive that an average vehicle speed of 60-80 km/h can be maintained on our inter-city roads. This will remove the necessity of people from nearby towns and villages to shift residence to the big towns where they work.
The essential requirement is to separate the slow moving vehicular traffic from the faster ones, and, thereby, achieve the desired average speed. This can be done by converting the existing highways out of major cities into expressways.
Today, most highways out of the major cities are, at least, double carriageways in either direction. By adding a shoulder to these carriageways for emergency vehicle movement for police or ambulances, enclosing it by sturdy railing and by construction of exitways at suitable distances for the fast moving vehicular traffic to get out of the expressway onto the country road or vice versa, these highways can be converted into expressways.
These expressways would, basically, comprise one lane for slower traffic and another one for faster/overtaking vehicles. At the same time, since expressways have a legally enforceable minimum speed limit below which vehicles cannot be driven, a supporting, connecting network of country roads for slow-moving traffic is required for transportation at different speeds; plugging in the gaps in the existing country roads’ network is neither very time-consuming nor expensive.
It can be added that, in many European Union countries, dual carriageways expressways are being constructed with European Commission funding.
Yet, the creation of such infrastructure would immediately improve the quality of governance in the cities and, due to easier and extensive access to the outlying areas, including towns and villages, would encourage not only the reversal of urban inflows but also the outward movement of people, from the big cities, for residential purposes and also investments in factories, hospitals, schools, shopping complexes et cetera.
Constituting a critical production factor, such infrastructure will accelerate economic growth and the rural-urban connectivity would be even more transformative than the IT revolution which boosted our services sector. This will have the benefit of an increase in land value for farmers and consequent, generation of revenue for the municipal as well as the village bodies.
The changing production pattern in the rural and peri-urban areas will create greater opportunities for employment and acquisition of skills; the agrarian operations will also get, automatically, rationalised because, in such an economic environment, farmers engaged in unsustainable farming operations would have no incentive to do that because they would find it easier to monetise their small landholdings at far better value and seek for themselves better and more diverse employment opportunities.
The growing commercialisation of agrarian operations would lead to higher value and high technology cropping pattern such as horticulture and floriculture for distant domestic or foreign markets. This infrastructure development approach will also be beneficial in areas affected by Maoist violence because there are several major towns in those areas where construction of expressways, and connecting them with the rural country roads, will bring in faster economic development, industrialisation and better employment opportunities for the local people who work under difficult personal circumstances in faraway towns.
For example, an expressway along with supporting countryside road network between Ranchi and Jamshedpur, about 200 km apart, will transform the entire region. Rural education needs a major overhaul. It currently, requires enormous sums of money from the governments at the national as well as the state levels with very discouraging results.
Articles by the Pulitzer prizewinning journalist, Anand Giridhardas, have highlighted the dilemma faced by the rural people in their pursuit of social mobility. Rural and peri-urban schools, suffering from poor infrastructure, absentee teachers, inadequate tuition facilities, hold little interest for children who find the subjects taught there as being of meagre practical utility. He has pointed out that teaching establishments in such areas, for computer learning as well as English-language coaching are highly popular even though they remain in the private sector.
The current situation, therefore, deepens the linguistic and digital divide between the urban and rural students giving them a feeling of deprivation between the haves and the havenots ~ between the ‘India’ and the ‘Bharat’! One solution could be for the government to adopt the policy of strengthening these computer and English-language teaching schools with capacity creation in a public-private mode, to improve both the English language skills as well as computer skills of the rural children.
One major reason behind the public dismay with the political class is the spectacle of the Parliament as well as the State Assemblies being paralysed due to the disruptive tactics followed by all political parties including, regrettably, the BJP.
It is becoming difficult for getting Parliament and the provincial assemblies to be fully functional as they ought to because every political party, without exception, uses the disruption of parliamentary and assembly proceedings as a tactic to achieve their political agenda.
However, given that Indian politics is turning over a new page in view of the massive mandate received by the BJP and its allies, it should be possible for the Prime Minister, with Presidential directive and decisive intervention on the part of the presiding officers concerned, to ensure that there is no parliamentary disruption under any circumstances.
The parties have a right to mobilise public opinion on the issues of concern from their point of view, but there is no right to disrupt parliamentary proceedings and to make the legislative bodies dysfunctional. A functional Parliament is the bedrock of democracy and good governance.
(The writer is a former Ambassador and author of ‘Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century’. He can be reached at [email protected])