Two cheers for Modi’s I-Day speech

Subir Roy | Updated on August 19, 2020

Will Modi be able to walk his talk?   -  PTI

The PM said all the right things on infra development and even the environment. But the ground realities remain a concern

Three developments under the present dispensation have been turning India economically inward. First came the ‘Make in India’ slogan. Then followed the call for self-reliance. And, over the last few years, trade barriers have been raised steadily.

But, interestingly, the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech marks a departure from this trend, at least a little. He has chosen to focus on value-added exports and, most importantly, the need to meet the world’s requirements so that Indian-made products get global appreciation. “We want to move ahead in the field of value addition and stop exporting raw materials and importing finished goods,” he has spelt out. Most significantly, he said the country must move from ‘Make in India’ to ‘make for the world’.

The problem with Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat was that they made the country inward-looking and signalled to businesses that it could survive and grow by serving just the domestic market. This would lead to inefficiencies and rising costs, resulting in the consumer having to pay more. But, now, the need to export and be globally competitive has been acknowledged through the call to raise value-added exports.

Infra push

This amounts to a significant course correction. From looking inward, the emphasis is now on exporting successfully. There is really not much difference between doing this and embracing globalisation by becoming a part of complex global supply chains.

It is axiomatic that an efficient manufacturing power cannot be built on weak infrastructure foundations, and there is some substance in the speech to indicate that investing in, and building, infrastructure is within the official focus. Modi has indicated that the country is moving towards infrastructure which will deliver multi-modal connectivity. The National Infrastructure Pipeline, with an allocation of about ₹110-lakh crore and nearly 7,000 identified projects, will provide a fresh momentum and new direction to overall infrastructure development in the country. Roads, rail lines and ports must be connected to give the country a comprehensive and integrated transport infrastructure. In particular, a four-lane highway will be constructed along the entire coastline of the country, taking Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral a step further.

On connectivity, at another plane, twin powerful goals have been announced of taking optical fibre cables to all of India’s 2.5 lakh panchayats and six lakh villages. A time limit of 1,000 days has been announced for completing the latter.

Grand projects and allocations are one thing, but making the funds actually available is another. To fund the forward thrust in infrastructure, the government will certainly try to go for public private partnerships (it does not like the public sector); at the end of the day, the close watch being kept on the fiscal deficit will likely constrain progress. This is despite the sound theoretical case for moving from a revenue-surplus position to one of fiscal deficit because of public investment.

Ecological initiatives

The speech also devotes a certain amount of attention to environmental concerns. A vision has been unveiled of making Ladakh, Leh and Kargil carbon-neutral, just as Sikkim has become the symbol of organic farming. The 7,500-MW solar power park being planned in Ladakh has been mentioned in this regard.

The commitment to the promotion and conservation of India’s biodiversity has been reiterated, and much pride has been taken in the fact that India is one of the few countries whose forest cover is rising. After successfully taking forward Project Tiger and Project Elephant, the next focus will be on Project Lion for the Asiatic Lion (perhaps expectedly, as Gir in Gujarat, Modi’s home-State, is the home and protectorate of this big cat). The government also wants to promote Project Dolphin to preserve both the sea and river dolphins.

Historically, the Red Fort speech is used to reach out to as many sections and present as impressive a list of projects as possible, and, overall, make all the right noises, and maybe a couple of important announcements. This speech is no exception. Hence, too much should not be made of all the good vibes it seeks to emit.

But given all this, Modi seems to have listened to criticisms and sought to make some significant course corrections. His critics have focussed on three issues. One, there is a dangerous attempt to make India economically insular when opening up has led to high growth and poverty reduction since the 1990s. Two, the right noises have been made on promoting infrastructure, but funding has been an issue. And, three, there is scant regard for protecting the environment, a special concern of the civil society types.

The speech creates the sense that there is a rethink on going insular. The right noises continue to be made on infrastructure and its funding, but the proof of the pudding will be in its eating. And it seems the environment is not entirely off the radar. Thus, Modi deserves two cheers.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on August 19, 2020

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