India needs action, not ideas, Mr. Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi stresses a lot on ideas. But the question is: does he need any ideas, apart from the ones that are already available?

Speaking on the occasion of the Transforming India Lecture, delivered by Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Friday, Modi said, “The transformation of India cannot happen without a transformation of governance. A transformation of governance cannot happen without a transformation in mindset. A transformation in mindset cannot happen without transformative ideas.”

Nice syllogism, but pointless. For most of the actions that need to be taken to transform India are known, obvious, and uncomplicated. For instance, it does not call for state-of-the-art technology or massive investment to clean the drains in cities; every year during rains cities get waterlogged, triggering huge jams and general nuisance for the citizenry. The Modi government just has to ensure that the local authorities are just doing their job properly. It is easier for the Prime Minister to get this done in at least the cities like Delhi and Mumbai where his party dominates the municipal bodies. But little, if anything, has been done in this regard. Or regarding the cleanliness mission that he has launched at the national level, burdening the taxpayer with a cess for the purpose.

Similarly, the importance of de-silting of rivers is also common knowledge, the absence of which causes floods. Again, the process of de-silting is not something that would require knowhow from, say, NASA. It, however, took the recent flood caused by the Ganga to wake up our political class. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar recently met the Prime Minister and urged him to chalk out a national silt management policy. De-silting of rivers should have become an integral part of administration long ago; it’s not late to start it right away. Again, this does not presuppose substantial brainstorming.

In the economic sphere, too, what needs to be done is quite well-known. A number of economists have made a myriad of recommendations for reforms, many of them in Economic Surveys and other official documents. The sum and substance of their recommendations too are no state secret: open up the economy, deregulate various areas, privatize public sector undertakings (PSUs), liberalize the labor regime, etc.

Delivering the first Transforming India Lecture, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Shanmugaratnam also said pretty much the same: “India has over-intervened in its economy and under invested in social and human capital. India has overreached itself in regulating its economy… To achieve its full potential it will, therefore, have to do less in some areas and do a lot more in other areas.”

The message: deregulate.

Shanmugaratnam also said, “It [India] has to withdraw from its own role of the state, economic regulation and ownership that restrains private investment and job creation and also preserves incumbents, existing players at the cost of new ones.”

The message: privatize PSUs, give more space to private players.

The same messages and ideas have been delivered n number of times by innumerable experts to the government. But the Modi regime is often reluctant to execute sensible ideas like privatization and labor reforms. Worse, in certain cases, like placing price caps in the pharmaceutical and agricultural seed sectors, it is working against the spirit of economic reforms.

Therefore, instead of scouting for new ideas for transforming India, the Modi government should focus on working on what is obvious and what is already known. In other words, it should follow the Nike motto: Just do it.