The utter emptiness one feels after the death of Delhi’s gangrape victim, and the pathetic response of our powerful politicians to the public cry for better governance, needs to be replaced with a sense of hope and purposive action. We can end 2012 convinced that our leaders – political, business, and social - have copped out on the biggest challenges facing the nation, but we as a people have to push them back to doing the right things in 2013.
2013 will have to create a coalition of the willing to force change through a system that has rotted at the core and been hijacked by vested interests. It no longer works for the benefit of all of us.
Making India work needs sacrifices from all of us, and especially the better off.
As a broad goal, we can no longer list economic growth as an overwhelming priority. Social progress and investments in social sectors like health, education and justice for the downtrodden (women, Dalits) have to be given equal, if not greater, emphasis. If we have to sacrifice one or two percent in GDP growth for a couple of years to give our society’s victims a ray of hope, so be it.
The most important belief to cultivate in 2013 is that growth will come from a process that emancipates, rather than something that victimises a huge majority in the name of economic reform. In fact, the sharp slowdown in the Indian economy we are now seeing may well be the result of the decline in social progress we have seen in recent years rather than any Lehman crisis or the ever-widening fiscal deficit.
This means our national priorities for investment must follow from our broader social goals and not just GDP goals. If society as a whole starts feeling better about itself, GDP will follow.
As a very first priority, we have to get our legal, criminal and police system functioning much, much better. If this system is reformed, it is possible to get justice; if it is not, no matter what we do, growth does not matter.
I heard a panelist say on a CNN-IBN show yesterday that India has 12 judges per million population when we need 60 per million. If this figure is right, one wonders how we ever expected to give justice to anyone.
Clearly, we need to double or triple our investments in policing, police training, crime investigation, public prosecution capabilities, victim counselling, judges and courtroom and legal infrastructure and procedures. And quickly. This should all happen in 2013.
If this has not happened in the past, it is because our politicians have a vested interest in slowing down justice for their own reasons.
In the wake of the death of the Delhi gangrape victim, the government has promised to speed up the trial of her killers, which will begin on 3 January. But this is exactly the kind of exceptionalism we don’t need. The government must, in fact, promise to fast-track and speed up chargesheeting and trials in all such pending trials anywhere. If we get convictions or acquittals in all the 500-and-odd rape cases pending in Delhi, not to speak of the lakh-and-odd cases pending all over the country, by June next, that would be progress. It is not about the Braveheart case any more.
Nor do these changes have to be restricted to women’s cases alone. They should encompass quick justice for all sections – including Dalits and minority groups (whether religious, caste, sexual orientation). Justice is indivisible.
The second thing we need to understand is that welfare is not the same as social change. The UPA government has been busy pouring money into mindless welfare schemes without fixing any existing scheme. While big spends obviously help reduce poverty, justice is not going to be served by just spending on welfare. Justice is about investing in both the soft and hard processes that make life worthwhile for everybody.
But India has done just the opposite: spent more money on NREGA and diesel subsidies than on improving justice delivery. As Ajay Shah wrote recently in his blog: “At present spending on police and courts (which are core public goods) is classified as ‘non-plan expenditure’ and is treated as a bad thing. Spending on private goods like welfare programmes is classified as ‘plan expenditure’ and grows lavishly year after year. In the UPA period, plan expenditure has gone up by four times in 10 years. These priorities need to be reversed.”
But it’s not just about government and legislators doing this or that.
Rama Bijapurkar, management consultant, and Vinita Bali, Managing Director of Britannia, write in The Economic Times that India Inc should not mind a temporary shrinking of profits in order to ensure its own long-term future.
After pointing out that “the economic growth of India is as much dependent on its women as its men” they emphasise that without gender justice, the skill shortage that India Inc keeps moaning about will not be remedied any time soon.
They say that companies should be willing to accept lower profits if this broader social goal is kept in mind. “The business case is clear and even the narrowest of corporate and business interests must see that enabling social equality and freedom from fear is in the interest of serving the god of GDP at whose altar they worship. This preamble is to also make the case that a decrease in corporate profit margins to help the government raise funds to spend on enablers of social progress, is not a horrifying idea— rather it is a very good one.”
However, I would add one caveat to their point. The problem is not raising funds at all. The government has been good at this, but has been very poor at spending it effectively. The real issue is the wastage of public money for narrow political ends. The rush to get into direct cash transfers is one example of political gains overshadowing the needs of systemic efficiency.
What India Inc needs to do is not just pay higher taxes, but seek to monitor how the money is spent. Without this oversight, political parties will just waste the resources raised.
A key reform we must insist on is public oversight of social change. This means both government and its executive arms must be subject to social and taxpayer audits. We need public-private partnerships in social change.
Consider how much better policing would be if each police station was subject to auditing by the people it seeks to serve. Currently, the police serve their masters, the rich and the powerful, not the people.
Consider how effective spending would be if taxpayers are given a right to check how their money is being spent. Taxpayers would be more interested in paying up when they know their money is well spent. Sure, there are CAGs to look at misspending, but what governance currently lacks is a direct public audit of their money.
The lesson from last year’s Lokpal agitation is clear: it was a failed, even flawed, attempt to get the executive to be accountable more often to the people. Accountability cannot be a once-in-five-years affair during a general election, when real issues can get submerged by momentary priorities. Accountability needs to be year-round.
In one line, this is what we need in 2013: focused spending and efforts to deliver better justice, and ensuring that people have a direct say in how they are governed.
A higher GDP with lower social justice is not worth having. If we do the opposite, GDP will automatically boom.