That sinking feeling

We, the people, have become we the insulated middle class people. We, the newspaper reading, television watching, cell phone using, educated, well-travelled, cynical, pragmatic, angry, annoying Indians.

We roll up our car windows to keep the smells of slums and unpicked garbage away. We park close to grocery stores so as not to be waylaid by beggars. We shop in air-conditioned sanctuaries that now stock foreign cheese and chocolate, shampoos and perfumes. We use back up power generators when electricity fails; we buy bigger cars because our roads are pot holed.

Public transport is inefficient so we buy more cars. We employ security guards for our homes and residential complexes because even up market neighbourhoods are unsafe. Corruption hits us in the face on a daily basis but we grease palms and get our way. We are survivors; the cusp-generation, which moved from a socialist mindset pre-90’s into the superhighway of the open economy.

Godspeed: For the surging optimism of the 2000s to return, PM Dr Manmohan Singh will have to boldly usher in second-generation reforms before the impending 2014 general elections 

As of 2009, 300 million people have escaped extreme poverty yet millions have no access to toilets, drinking water, education or housing. The government hobbles from one scandal to another and fear of a nightly news whiplash paralyses policymaking. Non-action has become the calling of the hour.
Is it a wonder then that even though the world looks upon us as an emerging power we feel dispirited?

Just last week, India hosted the BRICS summit. Heads of state of Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa were in the capital. Also last week, the Prime Minister was at another high table, the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul where he made a pitch for India’s membership at the four nuclear clubs: the NSG, MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.

But what is the lasting impression that we have of the week gone by? Not BRICS, not Nuclear Clubs but the ugly brawl between the army chief and government. The last bastion of probity in public life crumbled and the best kept secret, that the army is grappling with it’s own internal challenges and is as uncertain about the future as the rest of us, is now out in the open.

Maybe, it’s all for the good. For things to get cleaned, you need to air out the dirt, unpleasant as it may be. We appear to have entered a churning process born out of growing inequalities and a demand for responsive governance.

First generation reforms had the country speed up economic growth. A lot changed but so much remains the same. The growth process appears to be running out of steam. Somewhere the energy levels have fallen. It is bad news if India’s growth rate falls to six per cent.

Few want to believe the Planning Commission’s analysis on the poverty line. It is impossible for anyone to survive on Rs 28 per day in urban areas and Rs 22 in rural areas. India has always had a low poverty line, and every government claims to have brought down poverty, yet crippling inflation now makes this figure look ridiculous.

It is also a perception battle. When we, the insulated middle class, feel not so insulated while buying groceries, not seeing even a thousand rupee note going far, these planning commission poverty benchmarks look like a bad joke.

For the government to win our confidence, it will have to be seen to be making firm plans, taking strong actions. For the surging optimism of the 2000s to return, Dr Manmohan Singh will have to boldly usher in second-generation reforms the same way as he bull dozed his way with the nuclear deal.

Building a consensus is not easy, but who said governing India would be easy? One can’t wait to create ideas. They have to be generated, offered, and pushed forward. Everybody wants a share of the pie and they will join in, so long as the government of the day is willing to act. In 2007 India recorded its highest GDP growth rate of 9 per cent. But industry experts estimate growth slowing to 6.5 per cent in 2012-13.

That sinking feeling. The government is quick to assure us that the economy will grow at 7.6 per cent in the next fiscal, but nobody is buying that. What is the legacy that an economist Prime Minister wants at the end of his second term?

Smita Prakash is Editor (News) at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash 

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