One of the wondrous and infuriating characteristics of social media is that it is nearly impossible to decipher whether it is the cause or the consequence of the discourse in society. Arguably it is a bit of both and the multiplier effect has resulted in the deafening of thought in sections of society.
Music legend Paul Simon, rather presciently in 1964, lamented about “People talking without speaking; People hearing without listening”. Social norms, you could say, have evolved since, and if Sounds of Silence was re-recorded, Simon and Art Garfunkel would be singing, “People talking without listening, people sharing without thinking…” and of course, opining without knowing is emerging as the norm in any discourse in the polity. And it is not just in Parliament or among politicos. Discourse = people talking without listening.
On Monday, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath said economic incentives for investors will be linked to the political imperative of ensuring 70 per cent of the jobs went to locals. The statement triggered outrage online and offline. For starters, the qualification “permanent resident” is already a condition in many MP government ads. Anyway, Nath is scarcely the first chief minister to deploy the Thackerayesque line in politics—founded by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who used to call the Dadar-Madras Express the Stenographer Express, to build a locals-first cadre.
The bhumi putra condition is a preferred electorally profitable option across many states. In February 2018, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis declared that all new industries must ensure 80 per cent of the staff was local. In September 2018, Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani announced the state would pass a law to mandate 80 per cent jobs for locals. Karnataka, Jharkhand and Odisha are among states deploying the ‘Employment of Local Persons’ clause—indeed Telangana has zones requiring 95 per cent jobs for locals.
The fact that 2.5 crore persons, more than the population of Australia, apply for 90,000 railway jobs symptomizes the magnitude of the job crisis. Should there be a quota for locals is a political question and the answer is contextually variable. One would expect that an economy which receives $80 billion in annual remittances from workers abroad would define a more nuanced approach. That is not the case. Almost every state, including Delhi, has blamed persons from UP and Bihar—the Shiv Sena has literally chased and beaten up aspirants. It is natural for the politicos of Bihar and UP to protest. What is baffling is that the question, “Why Bihar and UP lag in job creation” is hardly aired or audible in the arena of anger.
Take the issue of rural distress—the other passionately argued debate this week. It stemmed from the possibility of a national loan waiver for farmers. Typically the outrage is divided on binary lines. Those against the waiver/higher MSP/ income support ideas cite the impact on the fiscal deficit and the banking system and are okay with incentives to industry but not subsidies to farmers. Those for the intervention cite the `10 lakh crore bad loans basket as justification. To be sure there is a general consensus that waivers are not the answer, but the discourse does not extend to solutions.
What must be but is not adequately interrogated is why state after state and government after government is relying on band-aid economics to resolve a gigantic crisis with the potential to wreck the economy. After all, 49 per cent of the workforce living off 15 per cent of the national income—that is Rs 22.77 lakh crore out of Rs 151.82 lakh crore, is hardly a recipe for the aspired 9 per cent growth.
The questions that need to be debated include why, despite the majority of MPs calling themselves farmers is the farm sector in such a rut? How much time do 4,000-plus MLAs devote to farm issues in the states? Why are reforms such as dismantling of APMC, introduction of lease agreements or contract farming opposed by the states?
In May 2017, the Niti Aayog under Arvind Panagariya released a 208-page three-year Action Agenda. This column weighed in on it and described it “all agenda, little action” (http://bit.ly/2pOwbqh). It is not known as to what is the fate of that agenda. Be that as it may, this week the Niti Aayog presented what it called Strategy for India @ 75. The headline aspiration indicated is for India to be a $4-trillion economy by 2022. It could serve as a useful revision of the gap between intent and implementation. Sherlock Holmes would have described it as a firm grasp of the obvious—all intent and little strategy. It lists the need to raise savings and investments for growth, but the strategy is missing.
These instances reflect the missing the woods for the trees phenomenon in public discourse. For instance, on Friday, the issue of an order authorising ten agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt private data was rendered into a whodunit of partisan blame. Increasingly, public policy rests more on individualised belief and less on institutionalised evidence. To paraphrase Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, the generation of rich rhetoric only results in poverty of attention and action.