A good indicator of a nations concern can be got by looking at the issues which hog the headlines in newspapers. I have looked into the past weeks, and I listed the following, not in any particular order:
Salman Khan and the hit-and-run case
RK Sharma confesses to involvement in the Shivani murder
Elections in Jammu and Kashmir
Narendra Modis Gaurav Yatra
SM Krishnas padayatra
Indian gold medal winners at the Asian Games
Sehwag and Gangulys centuries
Please take another look at the issues. Save the world of sports, all other issues are losers. Neither of them will take the nation forward nor will uplift the mood of the people. In fact, reading the newspaper in the morning is a depressing experience and turning on the television at night is certain to give you nightmares during your sleep.
There is no dearth of issues that can engage the attention of the country and its governments.
The problems that face the country even after fifty years of independence are staggering, but they are not insurmountable. Let me list some obvious concerns and how we could deal with them without enraging any section of the people or any political party. These are issues on which, with little effort, there can be a bipartisan approach. These are issues which can be put beyond the pale of political controversy.
Firstly, investment. If we are not able to agree on a disinvestment policy, could we not agree on an investment policy Banks are flush with money and this money should be channelled into business and agriculture. Just as water finds its level, money will flow into business and agriculture if interest rates are low. I believe that we err too much on the side of caution and keep interest rates too high. Even when average inflation has been below 5 per cent over the last five years, the prime lending rate of banks hovers around 11-12 per cent. This is the biggest disincentive to borrowing and investment in new ventures. The new investment policy must make available as much money as required by our successful public sector companies (NTPC, IOC) and a select number of private sector companies with a proven track record (Infosys, Reliance Petroleum, TCS, HLL, ITC). The key is lower interest rates. Because interest rates are too high, our best companies borrow abroad. New investments in greenfield projects will set in motion a chain of events that can banish the gloom in the economic outlook.
Secondly, jobs. Let the highly-educated or qualified take care of themselves for the time being. Can we not agree on policy of job-creation for our less educated and uneducated young men and women The unemployed workforce largely lives in rural areas, and out of despair migrates to the cities, adding to the woes of urban areas. What kind of jobs can we give them The obvious answers lie in massive irrigation and road building projects. To this can be added railways. The government has taken up the golden quadrilateral project, but that is not enough. We must penetrate the hinterland wherein live most of the poor. Every irrigation project must be given funds to be completed in double-quick time. Every district must be provided funds to take up large road works. The capital investment of railways must be enhanced. The so-called poverty alleviation programmes have failed miserably. The funds now allocated to these programmes should be resumed and assigned under the heads of irrigation, roads and railways. Many projects are still-born on the drawing boards because we have peculiar notions of cost/benefit ratio.
These sophisticated calculations do not take into account the enormous benefits that will flow from employing millions of men and women and reaching money to their households in the form of wages rather than through dubious subsidies and doles.
Thirdly, Kashmir. This issue, more than anything else, has caused an enormous drain on our financial, human and emotional resources. There is no way out of the tangle if we deal with the problem as a purely bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. The recently concluded elections are the first reasonably free and fair elections held in Jammu and Kashmir since 1977 or (some will say) 1983. The people, or at least those who voted, have sent a loud and clear message that they have no use for clenched fist patriots or chest-thumping nationalists. The biggest loser in the election was not, as many think, the National Conference. It was the BJP/RSS and their brand of militant Indian nationalism. The people of J&K have created a great opportunity for the political leaders of the country. Can we not agree that the government, or a group of eminent persons, will begin unconditional talks with all political groups in Jammu and Kashmir, including the Hurriyat And, if the talks lead to giving the people of that state a large degree of autonomy, what is wrong with that It would be a crying shame if we cannot take a leaf out of our neighbour Sri Lankas book.
Now, what do we do with the hundred other issues that bedevil the country. It would be naive on my part to suggest a moratorium on them, but may be the editors of our newspapers and other media will relegate them to the inside pages. I look forward to the day when I open my newspapers and read:
Prime Minister inaugurates Rs 8,000 crore power project.
Water flows to irrigate 100,000 hectares of land.
Delhi-Srinagar rail link completed.
Hurriyat gives up demand for separate Kashmir, accepts autonomy.
(The author is former Union finance minister)