It has been a story of surgical strikes for the BJP government these past few months: first the strike cross-border against Pakistan, and now the strike against black money with demonetization. As the party deals with the effects of these, they have another priority as well – making good on the electoral promises. With a little more than two years left to the general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in consultation with a Group of Secretaries, Niti Ayog and people working with the rural economy – has set up a monitoring committee within his office. This committee will not only review the progress of developmental programmes but will prioritise them.
Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi will be one of the first focuses of attention. The idea is to fight the general perception that nothing meaningful has been done for Varanasi till now. Some of the development here in the immediate future would include linking Varanasi to the Buddha Circuit, connecting a six lane highway to Kushinagar, improving connectivity to Kolkata through a rail-cum-road-cum-waterways system, a separate development board for Banarsi sarees and taking care of the pollution on the Ganges.
Senior minister Manoj Sinha, who also takes care of the constituency, says, “The time has come to implement the promises the PM had made as an MP from Varanasi. This implementation will continue in his second term as well.” He further explains that since Varanasi is an old city, it is physically difficult to carry out developmental works, but hastily adds that the new technology will make it possible.
He mentions that several departments will collaborate with Japanese experts to start projects in over two dozen sectors, including urban development, road transport, railways, tourism, Namami Gange, electricity, rural development, drinking water, sanitation and communication. “This might lead to some temporary inconvenience for the people of Varanasi, but it will be beneficial in the long run. There was a slight delay in some projects, as we were making a detailed road map of how to carry out civil works without putting people at an inconvenience,” Sinha adds.
It is also being indicated that some of the projects will start in time for the party to reap their benefits in the upcoming UP polls. Minister Mahesh Sharma tells TSI, “We will not only deliver on the promises made by the PM to the people of his constituency, we will also do it in such a way that people will remember it for a long time. This will also help people of the region.”
As for other points on the list of priorities, one of the secretaries from the Group of Secretaries told TSI that job generation is next on the radar. The PM is of the belief that the best solution to this is the Make in India and Skill Development programmes. He also adds that the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship has already finalised programmes, and results should start showing by Holi next year. Similar directives have been sent to other 18 interrelated ministries in order to assure an opportunity for self-employment to the youth.
The government has also decided to increase the loan amount under the PM Skill Development programme. According to the statistic provided by the ministry, by 2022, the programme will have to train 30 crore semi-skilled workers. The government has set a target to assure loans to as many as 40 crore individuals under the PM Skill Development and National Skill Developmental and Entrepreneurship programmes.
In a related development, big industrial houses and private sector companies have given in-principle assurances to the PMO that they will consider linking the skill mission to their ancillary production units. If this model works, then it will be implemented in other sectors such as engineering and automobile, where companies will help set up small units for production. For example, Maruti makes many of its spare parts through foreign vendors. It can, instead, train people and help set up units to produce them in India.
Says Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy, “The government has finalised the idea of linking the industrial sector with this programme. It is expected to help millions of youngsters soon.”
After returning from Japan, PM took stock of the demonetization programme and insisted that it must not adversely affect farmers, labourers, female entrepreneurs and small traders. The PMO is worried that it is adversely impacting farmers in harvest season and Rabi sowing season, and this might get reflected in GDP as well. But MOS agriculture SS Ahluwalia tries to spin it in a different direction. “The government wants to do away with ‘Inspector Raj’ from the system. Although there is no ‘Inspector Raj’ in the agriculture sector, there is definitely the problem of middle men that this step is aspiring to do away with. They corner the lion’s share of all the profits and leave farmers high and dry. The Union Finance ministry is trying to see to it that farmers avail of the benefits of subsidy programs without any leakage.”
Sources say that Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh, Rural Development Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Clean Drinking Water Minister Virendra Chaudhary Singh have been tasked to oversee the structural development programmes in villages. Nevertheless, the government recognises that it is easier said than done, and that unless various areas – for example the banking system and other infrastructure support – are made stronger in villages and middle men done away with, this problem can’t be solved.
As far as the Urban Development Ministry is concerned, it has set a target of constructing 15 lakh houses by the year 2022. The new houses will be built not only in Smart Cities (a project under the Ministry of Urban Development) but in other cities as well. The Finance Ministry is also looking at the proposal to cut interest rates on housing loans as well as starting the schemes for spot-loans.
The government also believes that if an individual has a bank account, ration card, access to affordable healthcare, livelihood and a roof over his head, he is not likely to stray onto the path of criminalisation and other social ills. It believes that those who are workless should be accommodated in some profession in order to control society related issues like crime et al. The government has singled out Post Offices all over the country to offer casual work to such people. Post Offices can be used for sending generic medicine to villages, informing people about population control, encouraging small savings etc. Although the permission is yet to come from the Health Ministry, it is expected that in the months to come, workers from local Post Offices will be seen distributing medicines in the villages.
The PMO is worried that the unorganised sector has been the most adversely affected by the demonetisation program. A task force under the leadership of Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya will look for opportunities among the challenges. On the other hand, Rural Development Minister Narendra Tomar is all set to bring in a program to harmonise casual labour in the villages with sectors such as dairy, animal husbandry and fishery. The PM is said to be unhappy with the programs meant for rural artisans. For example, after complaints were received from Varanasi saree industry represenatives, the PM is said to have dressed down Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ministry was responsible for some of the programs meant for the weavers.
As far as Health Ministry is concerned, it was asked to make affordable life-saving drugs available in both rural and urban areas. The result has been mixed. While the prices of a few drugs have been reduced, the prices of several other life-saving drugs have been increased. The Ministry has also come up with online portals where consumers can look for cheaper alternatives of otherwise costly medicines.
At the central level, a regulatory authority has been formed that has identified over five dozen medicines used for diseases and ailments such as cancer and diabetes. A total of 56 brands from these medicine groups have been selected for capping. A reduction of price by 25 percent is in the offing. The Ayush Ministry too is busy in spreading traditional medicines to far off villages, believing, rather unsurprisingly, that people prefer traditional medicine over regular ones.
The Ministry is also looking at the option of making it compulsory for government doctors to do their first posting in the rural areas. This is being done in order to stop the flow of patients from villages towards big cities. The idea is to provide them with quality medical facility in the villages and small towns in order to stem the flow of patients. There are additional plans to digitize appointment processes in AIIMS and other hospitals with the latest and most efficient IT systems.
The PM is also said to be of the belief that common man should get a bang for their buck as far as affordable transportation is concerned. Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju says that PM is so concerned about the modes of transportation for the common man that his department is not even in the priority list. Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu keeps apprising PM Modi of the latest developments in his ministry. Modi is also said to have appreciated Prabhu’s work. As far as Railways is concerned, the Group of Secretaries had proposed the scrapping of the rail budget as a separate budget leads to less flow of capital in the industry, leading to mismanagement.
As far as Centre-State relations are concerned, those still remain derailed on the issue of assistance given by the Centre in 11 sectors. It is being said that States were mismanaging the funds spent on Central Government projects leading not only to structural problems in these projects but also to issues with the States' own projects in states. Senior Congress leader Manish Tiwari says that the government’s outlook is draconian as far as providing funds is concerned. “Under Modi Ji’s rule (sic), every non-BJP ruled state has to plead like a beggar for funds. Such is his benevolence, that even his ally, TDP, was given a short shift in Andhra Pradesh,” he added acerbically.
Such is the scenario that the present dispensation is non-committal on delivering the promises made by the then Manmohan Singh government to Andhra Pradesh vis-à-vis special status, on the basis of the recommendations made by 14th Finance Commission. This has left TDP sulking.
Andhra Pradesh needs that fund to construct a new capital city. The scarcity of funds has also stopped as many as five large irrigation projects. While the government has not stopped the funding technically, it has sent an advisory to every state government asking them to submit utilisation certificates of the past projects before new funds are released. The government has deliberately cut the funds of opposition ruled states, especially so in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu insists that there is a marked improvement in the State-Centre relationship since the days of UPA when Planning Commission was king and every Chief Minister had to beg like a pauper. He insists that Niti Aayog will help improve this. He also believes that GST will take care of the acrimony that used to arise because of division of tax receipts.
Sort of as a final word, RSS ideologue and ex-member of BJP, Govindacharya, says that it has been almost three years and nothing concrete has happened on the ground. Now that Lok Sabha elections are just two years away, it will be interesting to see how this jump-start works for the government.