P V Indiresan

Some policy tips for Modi

P.V.INDIRESAN | Updated on December 14, 2012

Modi’s advantage is that no competitor has the desire to make urban spaces liveable for the poor. However, any such move will be stoutly resisted by vested interests.

No one has dominated the media — print, radio and TV — as thoroughly as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the past few weeks. Interest in him has been high mainly because he is a probable future Prime Ministerial candidate.

He has astonished everyone by the way he has bypassed colleagues in his own party and nullified all opposition, including that of the Congress. However, he remains a controversial figure; therefore, his success is not certain. Congress party stalwarts appear to be confident of returning to power in Delhi.

Chief Minister Modi faces formidable opposition within his own coalition — Orissa has already left and Bihar too may do so. Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena may not help much.

He has to strengthen his own BJP enormously before he can hope to succeed. Having captured Gujarat as thoroughly as he has done, he is hopeful.

But India, even Bharat, is different from Gujarat in two distinct ways: One, Gujaratis are traditionally pro-business whereas the rest of the country is suspicious of them. Two, Gujarat is largely an urban State, whereas the rest of the country is virtually rural. Further, Gujaratis seek progress, whereas most others seek security.

URBAN RENEWAL

It is important to note that the Congress Party has promised many freebies, even direct cash transfers, whereas Modi has offered only progress. The other parties have captured significant portions of the dominant castes in their constituencies. Will and can Modi’s promise of future prosperity persuade the poor, illiterate and semi-literate villagers to shift their loyalties?

Modi has two choices: One, promise them all a better place in cities. Two, convince villagers of a superior rural development. We should remember that the Congress’ attack on him has been on his record in the villages of Gujarat. Can he convince villagers that he can make villages really prosperous in a way that is superior to immediate personal cash or the traditional solidarity of age-old caste?

Our cities are terrible. Most people do not have enough disposable income to pay for a civilised makaan (mostly in black) after paying for roti and kapda. Most cities are unable to provide potable water, garbage disposal, sanitation or power; the cities are terribly overcrowded, they are filthy. State-operated schools are in terrible shape and healthcare is worse. Mass transport is poor or non-existent. That bad state of affairs will continue unless urban policies change.

For instance, can Modi persuade politicians and their friends not to speculate in urban land in the way they are doing to raise land prices artificially high? Can he change the archaic urban regulations that currently permit building floor upon floor, particularly on narrow streets? He may convince them of better civic administration but better (English medium) schools remain very difficult. He has to implement new solutions to urban areas, such as:

Wide streets with space for ambulances (and possibly fire engines too) to pass through after cars are already parked on either side.

Municipal authorities to offer guaranteed water supply and daily clearance of garbage.

Real-estate developers accept the Pareto Criterion and let top 20 per cent of dwellings occupy no more than half of the residential space and guarantee the bottom half of the population at least twenty per cent of that space. Employers (at least relatively larger ones with five or more employees) will not start or expand businesses unless they can provide affordable space for their employees to build their own homes.

ROAD AHEAD

The last criterion is likely to be very difficult and if not politically impossible to enforce. The alternative is rural development. Rural areas have the advantage of space, easy feasibility of recycling water, easier garbage disposal, and cheap housing. On the other hand, it is difficult for them to guarantee the investment needed to generate urban-style jobs.

In other words, cities offer better jobs but very poor living conditions and rural areas a possibility for better living conditions but not the capital needed to bring in either attractive jobs or to develop modern living conditions. It is also difficult to get rid of their bias towards traditional narrow streets which cannot permit modern cars and mass transport.

Modi starts with the advantage that no competitor has the slightest vision or desire to make living spaces liveable for the poor, and with the disadvantage that any such move will be stoutly resisted by vested interests, including the poor, who crowd in on any new road that is built and make it impossible to widen it.

Godhra is undoubtedly Mr Modi’s greatest handicap. The fact is that it was Muslims who caused the initial provocation. There can be different shades of opinion on who first initiates riots and the response from the other side. The media treatment of such sensitive issues is also open to debate. But the biggest problem is our tardy and ineffective judiciary. If culprits are punished promptly, there would be little reason for Muslims to get irate; then there would be no retaliation too. It is also a fact that over two hundred persons have been convicted about Godhra, whereas not one person has been punished for the Congress-sponsored anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Modi has a tough fight on his hand. He can win only if he can device a convincing case for a programme of development that will appeal to non-Gujaratis — both urbanites and rural folk — that is better than cash doles or caste cohesiveness. He has to reform the judicial process too.

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Response to >indiresan@gmail.com and >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

This is 344th in the Vision 2020 series. The last article was published on December 1.

Published on December 14, 2012

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