Out-of-box policy ideas for 2020
The difficulty, John Maynard Keynes said, is not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones. As India heads towards a new decade, here are a few ideas, fresh out of the box, in no particular order, which can enable the dismantling of old shibboleths for smarter governance.
List and Value Assets for Monetisation
Every suggestion and solution to get the economy out of the trough is met with a standard query. Where is the money? This dire situation calls for an assessment of assets to know the potential of resources to pay for emerging liabilities.
For years governments have been chanting the mantra of monetising assets. The fact though is that there is no ready reckoner of the potential. The government is sitting on assets — idle land and public sector enterprises for instance. The first step to realisation is recognition and it is time the government presents before Parliament the volume and value of assets to monetise them. The derived estimate, of the potential kitty, will enable debate and discussion and bolster sentiments.
Every Finance Commission has tried to underline the need for states to devote resources and spelt out availability of funds for education, health and human development. State governments on their part have mastered the art of deploying data and words to subvert/circumvent norms to divert resources for electorally profitable schemes. The distance between promise and performance is dictated by the insufficiency of funding as also ineptness and inadequacy of state capacity to implement policy.
In India’s confounding quasi federal structure the phrase ‘autonomy’ is frequently weaponised but sadly accountability is not! The circumstance demands the attention of the 15th Finance Commission. Ear-marking the entire devolution into silos may trigger volatile politics. But nothing reasonable stops the Commission from linking additional devolution to specific use. Why not proscribe diversion of funds meant for human development by placing them in a use specified escrow account — from which states can draw on submission of human development objectives and outcomes.
Hand over Air India to Tatas
The saga of the systemic torture of the Maharaja demands a season finale. For sure the government must get out of Air India. As early as in 1950 the Justice Rajadhyaksha Committee had warned that inflexible and slow “government departments are particularly unsuitable to the needs of the air transport industry.” For two decades governments have waxed eloquent about the intrinsic value of the national airline. A series of aviation ministers have predicted its divestment and predictably failed. Now every few weeks the unsustainability of its finances is presented as a premature obituary.
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This charade of finding buyers, inviting bids has run its course and calls for closure. The government’s best option, at the terms laid out, is to hand over the airline to the Tatas. It will be an act of absolution — the nationalisation of Tata Airlines into Air India is a sordid case of political deception. Its return to the Tatas will be an act of salvation — for the survival of the airline and of a historic legacy pioneered by JRD Tata. The optics is as compelling as the economics.
Deploy Water ATMs
The promise of piped water has been a pipe dream for decades. Since Independence, India has invested in engineering solutions to deliver water whereas the need is to engineer innovative customised solutions.Last week, the government announced Atal Jal Yojana to deliver piped water to 15 crore rural homes and introduce a new structure for groundwater management. Why not empower and fund panchayats to set up Water ATMs using groundwater and provide safe drinking water — by pipes or at source, for a fee to cover maintenance or a free, as the villagers resolve. Dependence on groundwater will ensure villages have a stake in protecting groundwater and nudge behavioural change. To start with, the government can launch the project in 150 aspirational districts and extend it to 55,000 rural habitations struggling with arsenic and fluoride laced water.
Solar on Roads and Highways
India’s push for infrastructure faces a funding challenge. Depending on who is telling, the undeclared gap between expenditure and income in the budget is estimated to be between `3 lakh crore and `5 lakh crore. Opacity and obfuscation has worsened perceptions and fears among investors in the roads and renewable power sectors.
Extraordinary situations call for imaginative approach. Consider the context. Land is the biggest hurdle in setting up solar power plants. Rural roads and the dividing space between highway lanes are underutilised assets. Countries such as Korea and the US are using both the road space and the air space over the road to set up solar plants. It is an idea worth examination and emulation — states, Rural Development Ministry, Surface Transport Ministry and the NHAI, along with Ministry of Power, could shortlist sites with best potential to investors. The moolah raised could propel the infra mantra.There is no disputing that ideas are embedded with implementation challenges but as the cliché goes, ‘no bees, no honey and no money’!