The Niti Aayog has released, what it calls the three-year Action Agenda. The 208-page document, the Niti Aayog says, “charts an ambitious, transformational yet achievable Action Agenda for the government during 2017-18 to 2019-20.”
The Action Agenda is a hybrid of the times. It awaits a vision and a strategy. Arvind Panagariya, Vice-Chairman of Niti Aayog, has promised that a more comprehensive document would follow in the form of a 15-year Vision and seven-year Strategy. That begs the question of sequencing—should it not be Vision followed by Strategy followed by an Action Agenda? Should the sequence be “fire, ready, aim” or “aim, ready and fire”.
Be that as it may, the Action Agenda covers the width of issues confronting India. There is an unmistakable scent of the past—the issues that haunted India have not yet been exorcised. Presentation has changed—if the five-year plans were like dreary wordy documentaries, the Action Agenda is like a movie trailer with a breathless voice over.
Unerringly, the first reference is about resources. In the 12th five-year plan, then PM Manmohan Singh underlined the “need to bring the macro-economic balances under control”. The Action Agenda argues the case for maintaining the fiscal balance and “linking expenditure to future priorities”. The core objectives are more or less unchanged. Focus on agriculture—the phraseology here is doubling farmers’ incomes, followed by emphasis on trade, industry and services, and the need for creating “well-paid jobs”.
The Action Agenda makes a startling assertion that “unemployment is the lesser of India’s problems. The more serious problem, instead, is severe underemployment.” To explain this logic it uses data—49 per cent of the workforce employed in agriculture which contributed only 17 per cent of India’s GDP and firms employing employed 72 per cent of manufacturing work force but contributed only 12 per cent of manufacturing output.”
That agriculture employs the bulk of the workforce, is essentially about lack of opportunity—the farm-to-factory formula has rusted over two decades. The causative of 72 per cent of manufacturing workforce delivering only 12 per cent output is located in the matrix of informality, technology, skills, productivity, clearances and friction of compliance that entrepreneurship is assailed by.
What does the Action Agenda spell out to double farmer income? Agriculture needs new technologies, shifting from low to high value commodities and expansion of scope and access to irrigation for crop intensity. Add Agriculture Produce Market Committees law requires to be modernised and an effective legal framework for contract law should be established.
What about industry, jobs? The Action Agenda says there is a need to create high productivity jobs and for large organised sector firms for rapid transformation of the economy. It cites the experience of China and South Korea to suggest that the Make in India campaign needs to succeed by manufacturing for global markets. Also Coastal Employment Zones should be created to attract multinational firms in labour-intensive sectors from China. The wish list discounts the disruption of value chain economics by politics.
The section on growth enablers argues the need to develop a physical digital infrastructure network accessible to all, strengthen framework governing PPP, and improve efficiency in distribution of coal, electricity, oil and gas. Add the need for reforms in tax administration, in regulatory environment, capacity to strengthen rule of law, harmonisation of laws, and reduction in government intervention.
‘Need’, ‘require’, ‘must’ and ‘should’ are the operative phrases through the Action Agenda. There is no denying that the document outlines the causalities well. Most of the issues and solutions have been in the public domain for decades. Every five-year plan document has been riveted with them, and the narrative of ‘we need’, ‘we must’, ‘we should’, ‘we require’. The Niti Aayog has been around now since January 2015. It was expected to be different.
One of the problems with our plans, Manmohan Singh had said, is “they have focused on outlining an attractive future, with not enough focus on what is needed to achieve it, and the consequences of failing in this regard.” The Action Agenda faces this danger.
The problem with the Niti Aayog Action Agenda is that there is much about what and little about how, who and when. Perhaps they find place in the vision or the strategy, we do not know. For now, the Action Agenda is all agenda and not enough action.
Important questions in the social sector seem to have got the hovercraft treatment. Take gender. The Chinese say, women hold up half the sky.
The contribution of women to Indian GDP at 17 per cent is worse than sub Saharan Africa at 39 per cent—and that the value of wages for unpaid work would add $300 billion to GDP. The way forward, the Action Agenda says, is, “Over the next few years, focus on promoting equal participation of women.” Motherhood and apple pie indeed.
What about issues daunting the vulnerable? Between 2000 and 2050, India’s population will grow by 55 per cent and that of citizens above 60 and 80 years by 325 per cent and 700 per cent. How should India address old-age issues? The Action Agenda has suggested that the Welfare of Senior Citizens Act must be revisited; new policy on senior citizens should be finalised and implemented.
For sure there are interesting thoughts—land bank of small holdings, purchasing capacity from private sector for healthcare, creation of coastal economic zones, specialisation and HR policy for civil servants to name a few. But they are incremental in nature. In many of the sectors, especially social sectors, deliberations are yet to happen and need a parade of missions and commissions. Timelines for deliverables is good but must it take 18 months to create a repository of central and state laws?
In September 2001, international consultants McKinsey made a presentation to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The bottom line was that India had the potential to grow at 10 per cent once government pushed 13 critical reforms on issues ranging from FDI to governance. At the end of the presentation Vajpayee asked one question: “Yeh sab hoga kaise? (How will all this happen?)” The essence of the cryptic poser was how will it all happen.
Vajpayee’s question continues to echo and the answer is blowing in the winds.