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India's Development Arteries Need To Be Unclogged Right Now

20/11/2015 8:57 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The shape of the country of India in the colours of its national rupee currency recessed into an isolated white surface

'India is the country which will always have a future', says, tongue-in-cheek, T.A. Ninan, the widely respected commentator on India's economy, and author of a new book, The Turn of the Tortoise. The great potential of India's market is known: the huge bulge of youth in its population; low levels of incomes and consumption in the country which must be increased; the infrastructure that has to be built; the social services crying to be improved.

It has become fashionable to describe India as an 'aspirational' country, whose hundreds of millions of youth want a better future for themselves as fast as possible. The implication of this aspiration is: if Indian leaders, in government and business, cannot work together to create opportunities for these millions of youth to earn decent incomes, their aspirations will be frustrated. It is safe to say that, in the new millennium, India's aspirations have been growing faster than actual progress on the ground, which causes Ninan to make his wry comment.

Another astute observer of India, Nobel Laureate author, V.S. Naipaul wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, a book about the aspirations, and the energy released in India after the reforms in the economy initiated by Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasihma Rao. A wag said that if Naipaul were to write a book about India in 2012, twenty odd years after those reforms, its title would be India: A Million Bottlenecks Now.

"The contrast between the paces at which China's and India's economies have developed in the past thirty years, makes some people suggest that in India development should have preceded democracy"

When India's Planning Commission was compiling the 12th Five Year Plan in 2012, many stakeholders suggested to the Commission that rather than writing yet another plan with lofty aims, it should concentrate on implementing plans already made. The problem in India, they said, is not a lack of ambition, nor absence of policies and plans. It is the inability to implement policies, plans and projects.

The bottlenecks in implementation are at many levels: at the center, in the states, and in the cities and districts. An analysis by the Planning Commission revealed that the root causes of these myriad bottlenecks are contentions amongst stakeholders, and confusion amongst agencies. Contentions amongst political parties are stalling the conduct of Parliament and the passage of legislations.

Political parties must be in opposition to each other: indeed, competition amongst political parties gives democracies strength to prevent imposition of undemocratic solutions. However, contentions much deeper within the system, which are avoidable, are creating the million bottlenecks that are stalling India's progress. They are preventing implementation of polices and plans even after they have been agreed to. Government ministries do not cooperate with each other, even taking disputes amongst themselves to judicial courts for resolution! Differences between stakeholders on matters relating to land use, environmental impacts, etc. stall projects and often go to courts which are clogged with huge backlogs.

It is wrong to blame 'democracy' for India's weaknesses in implementation. Many other countries which are proudly democratic, such as Germany, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries, are able to get things done very efficiently. They too have many ministries with different charters, and they too have stakeholders with divergent interests. However, they have developed systems of cooperation amongst stakeholders and for cooperation amongst agencies that enable differences to be resolved and that prevent too many bottlenecks arising.

The contrast between the paces at which China's and India's economies have developed in the past thirty years, makes some people suggest that in India development should have preceded democracy. However, the clock cannot be turned back. India has democracy, and is proud of it too.

"NITI has been formed but has yet to take off. "

What India's discordant yet proud democrats must realize is this: democracy does not consist only of conducting free elections with competing political parties, which India can do very well. Democracy also requires systematic processes of deliberation amongst diverse groups, where they will listen to each other and come to a consensus. If elections are the vertical threads of democracy's fabric, systematic processes for deliberation and resolution of differences amongst stakeholders are democracy's lateral threads. Together they make the social fabric and the economy strong.

With its incredible diversity, and its commitment to democracy, India punches well above its economic weight in the imaginations of people all over the world. Indians have great aspirations to improve their economic well-being and to make India an economic power. They also have aspirations to live in a harmonious society of diverse peoples. To convert Indian citizens' aspirations for faster economic growth, with democracy and more harmony in the country, into reality, India must install processes for systematic collaboration amongst stakeholders.

Examples of such processes are available in many democratic countries, and some within India too. The last Planning Commission found these and it proposed the concept of an 'India Backbone Implementation Network (IBIN)'. The Planning Commission was abolished by Prime Minsiter Modi. Nevertheless, the IBIN concept was articulated, in different words, in the charter of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, the Planning Commission's successor. NITI has been formed but has yet to take off.

India must move faster. Processes for systematic and participative planning and implementation must be propagated and applied across the country--in cities, in the states, and amongst the states. They will prevent bottlenecks from arising. By converting contentions into collaboration, and confusion into coordination, they will enable Indians to convert their intentions into implementation, and their aspirations into reality.

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