Let ideas flow

The news of the week has been Anna Hazare’s fast, and the tremendous media attention, which was focused upon it. The issue of fighting corruption in the public domain finds resonance with every Indian, and most people want to be part of a campaign that fights corruption.

The why and how and the nuts and bolts of any
meaningful involvement will obviously have to be devised within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. To my mind, however, that’s the most obvious form of involvement in issues of national interest and the most media attractive. Less media obvious and of equal public importance are social sector concerns such as health and education.
In recent years, the very definition of politics has changed and expanded in India. Social sector concerns such as those of health and sanitation, or education, have come into the mainstream of political discourse. If I were to use newspaper terminology, they have moved from page 19 to page one.
There are three reasons for this. First, as India’s economy has grown and soared in recent years, it can no longer get away with crucial gaps in its provision of public health and education. These are goods and services that citizens will increasingly demand — and justifiably so — in a rising economy. The expectation will be that governments in New Delhi and in the states either provide these public goods or facilitate policies and measures that will do so.
Second, India’s economic rise is underpinned by its demographic dividend, by the fact that it will have the largest population of working-age individuals in the first half of the 21st century. Yet, without crucial health, education and social sector interventions, will we be able to harness this demographic dividend and meet our economic potential? Can an economy with eight or nine per cent growth rate and a society with the largest collective of sick people — in absolute numbers — anywhere in the world co-exist?
These challenges and questions confront us every day. Only the other week, when the initial figures for the Census of 2010-11 were released, the pride of the wealthiest, most literate Indian populace since Independence sat uneasily with the embarrassment of the worst male-female sex ratio since 1947. Can this go on?
The answer to that question brings me to my third reason: the political commitment to the social sector. That the ambit of politics has expanded in the past few years, that public health access and education equity issues have come to the forefront and gained hitherto unprecedented attention in policymaking circles is to my mind the most heartening achievement of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
This is a reflection of the commitment to inclusive growth and holistic development that defines the public career of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Even more, this is a legacy that no successor government — irrespective of party or political affiliation — can efface for decades to come. The entire paradigm of political discourse, and of placing health and social sector issues within it, has been transformed.
Having said that, there is a vast space between intent and implementation, and that is where research and in-depth study into these implementation concerns assume critical importance. Today, India has what may be called the hardware to meet health and social sector goals. It has a robust government and public health framework, it has resources — its gross domestic product and public outlays are larger than ever before. However, it is deficient in what I would term the software: the ideas and innovations that will rejuvenate this hardware and optimise its achievements.
In simpler terms, India’s health and education and social sector and welfare budgets are larger and bigger than ever in its history. The UPA government has been true to its promises here. Yet, the ideas for how this money would and should be well spent, the requisite devices and policies and methods of delivery remain a work in progress.
Paucity of ideas should not be the reason to pour more money into old and, in some cases, sub-optimal templates and strategies. This is particularly apparent in the states. Health and education are issues for state governments under India’s Constitution; the Union government has limited powers and authority. It can propose overarching policy, it can provide the money, but the implementation and actual “doing” is in the hands of the states.
Yet, how does it ensure that state governments and local authorities take charge of the proverbial last mile; that they set up adequate and enough primary schools in that faraway village; that they provide quality healthcare, good doctors and nurses and a clean delivery or surgery room in a decidedly rural, underprivileged setting?
These are issues we need to think through. We need civil society, civil society organisations, NGOs and eminent citizens to work with the government and the bureaucracy instead of adopting adversarial positions which do not help anybody and achieve little except media hype.
They must be voices for processes and positions, not for personalities and partisanship. Credibility cannot exist in a vacuum. It needs to be institutionalised and structurally enhanced and protected.
Next, partnerships between the government, NGOs, private sector and the civil society are necessary as it is increasingly hard for a single actor to advocate policy change. There is a synergy here that is waiting to be recognised.
Also, the synergy and ideas which flow and are synchronised between important stakeholders have to embody the concept of developing innovative policy ideas and aggressively selling those ideas to the necessary stakeholders. It is critical to be able to understand the political and economic dimensions and work with a diversity of stakeholders to bring them on board. In other words, NGOs and civil society should not be adversarial to the political community and bureaucracy but need to engage them and build a successful alliance.
In the ultimate analysis, it is this balanced and nuanced approach that will help our democracy move forward, rather than any hostile approach.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson. The views expressed in this column are her own.

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