A Country Obsessed With Peripheral Issues

Updated: Jul 6 2003, 05:30am hrs
I write this from Thiruvananth-apuram in the south-west of India. I have before me copies of two English language mainstream newspapers for the past few days. I read the headlines on page 1 and my heart is filled with sadness. Let me list the top newstories.

18 killed as Golconda Express falls off bridge in Warangal.

Government not averse to sending troops to Iraq.

Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court reserves ruling on ASI plea.

PMO officials meet cable operators to resolve CAS confusion.

Kerala Government against total ban on hartal.

Singhal asks for Vajpayees head.

Badal will not be arrested.

Naxals kill 3 cops, torch police station in Bihar.

Census Directors order creates tension.

The blue sea lies ahead of me. The catamarans (or valloms) are returning to the shore. Through the whole night, fishermen have remained in the sea. A single naked bulb bobbing up and down marked each vallom. Mercifully, the weather has been kind, though this is the monsoon season. I prayed last night that the fishermen should have a good catch. Because that is their livelihood, the only one they and their fathers and their forefathers have known for centuries. Only when the fisherman comes home this morning, will there be food on the plate for his family.

I scan the newspaper headlines once again, but this time through the eyes of the fisherman. Nothing makes sense. Why are trains falling off bridges Will India be a better place if Mr Vajpayee resigns and Mr Singhal becomes Prime Minister Why does Mr Badal, after being chief minister for five years, face arrest What purpose does a study of churches and mosques serve Who are these Naxalites and why do they kill

India is a country that is obsessed with politics and peripheral issues. We cannot do without politics or political parties. Nor can we brush aside the peripheral issues that will arise from time to time. But I know of no country in the world that is so totally absorbed with politics and non-essential matters. Public affairs in India is one long-playing soap opera, and our fascination for it is no less than our fascination for the melodramas that are played out on the television screen every afternoon and evening. The only difference is that the former is a reality show that has enormous consequences for over a billion people. Not one of the issues that make the headlines has any connection with the economy or the welfare of the people. Not one has any connection with production of goods or services. Not one has any connection with jobs. Not one has any connection with water or housing or electricity or roads or schools. Not one will make any difference to the fisherman who returned this morning with his catch after being out in the sea through last night.

As a nation, we pay a huge price for the neglect of fundamental economic issues.

Beginning 1998-99, when the BJP-led government assumed office, we have completed five financial years. In three out of five years, Indias GDP has grown at less than 5 per cent. In 2002-2003, the growth rate was barely 4.3 per cent. In not one of these years has the rate of growth crossed 6.5 percent, not to speak of 7 per cent or the ambitious target of 8 per cent.

Even while the figures released by the Central Statistical Organisation have spread gloom, there is more disturbing news from another quarter. The ministry of agriculture has released figures, which show that the production of foodgrain in 2002-2003 was lower by 1.5 million tonne than the earlier estimate. It is now placed at 182.57 million tonne. The estimate for pulses has also been revised downwards from 11.8 million tonne to 11.31 million tonne.

What does all this mean It means that instead of generating 8 million new employment opportuities every year, the economy is throwing up only 4 to 5 million jobs. It means that investment has virtually stagnated, especially in the agriculture sector. For the agriculture sector, it also means that the sector has become more monsoon-dependant and that there is little innovation in matters concerning crop-pattern, water-use, seeds, harvesting and storage. It means that the manufacturing sector, barring a few segments, has not been able to scale up to world standards, nor has it required the muscle to make its products internationally competitive.

We must thank God that Indians from poor families, at enormous sacrifice to themselves and their families, go abroad to work and remit large amounts of money to their homes. We must also be grateful that tourists come to India in large numbers every year, notwithstanding uncertainties and health hazards.

As I write this, there is a viral fever raging in parts of Gods Own Country. On the other hand, tourist arrivals in Kerala have increased by 16 per cent in the five months from January to May this year. We must also be thankful to the fishermen and other ordinary Indians who toil hard and long regardless of what our governments and politicians do. In Europe, every Prime Minister is concerned about the economy. He or she is doing something to tackle the growing deficit or to give a fillip to employment. They are concerned about taxes, agriculture prices, burden of pensions, the need to allow more immigration to take up jobs for which there are no people and so on. These concerns are reflected in the debates that take place inside Parliament and outside.

On the contrary, India seems to have entered what I call the zone of dangerous complacency. Our foreign exchange and food reserves have induced the belief that all is well with our economy. That is a grave error and, sooner than later, India will pay a heavy price. We need a moratorium on all issues other than the economy for at least 10 years. It is a pity that even Mr Vajpayee, who is comfortably ensconced in the office of Prime Minister, will not give a lead in this behalf.

For what it is worth I leave you with this thought of Jonathan Swift. Whoever would make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together. (The author is a former Union finance minister.)