Is Jingoism Driving Policy Decisions in India's Quest For 'Acche Din?'
Is Jingoism Driving Policy Decisions In India's Quest For 'Acche Din?'
I had to make two trips from Howrah to Mumbai in the last few months. On both the occasions I failed to get reservations in the fast Duronto express and had to settle for Howrah-Mumbai Mail. And both the times, I reached Mumbai almost 6 hours late after spending more than 40 hours in an overcrowded train. It was taxing and frustrating in equal measure. The Indian Railways, the bulwark of the public transportation system, has long been plagued by huge passenger burden, low fares, high accident-rates and a host of other sanitation issues. However the new central dispensation has raised fares, promised to improve the record on public safety and in a move that has been hysterically celebrated, promised Bullet Trains. Yes, Bullet Trains for India!
Does that make any sense? Why would you want something just for the sake of it? Is some misguided notion of jingoism driving policy decisions now? The government’s defense is that we will enter an elite club of nations with this technology. Is that sufficient? Bullet trains are not rocket science and will not have the long-term impact on society that say ISRO has. The infrastructure needed for high speed railroads is obscenely expensive and hard to put in place in a densely populated country. The pricing of these rail networks will also have to be heavily subsidized since our purchasing power has not yet approached Japanese levels (last time I checked). Would the Government then subsidize this expense while at the same time crying itself hoarse over the subsidy burden of LPG, petrol and diesel? Isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy and playing to the gallery?
Why wouldn’t you instead focus on reducing the load on the existing rail network by having more frequent, cleaner and faster trains connecting all major hubs of the country? How about connecting India to that place in the East that I forget, what’s it called, the North-East? A train to Shillong or Imphal would be a tourism hit! Instead of focusing on reforms that would affect millions of people, like redesigning the abysmally slow IRCTC website (which is the butt of several jokes), enabling easier Tatkal reservations, better customer service and food quality in trains, world-class safety norms, why is the government bent on shoving a bullet train down our collective national throat? Perhaps Mr. Modi wants his signature moment, his pet big project.
A logical analysis of some of the other steps announced in the budget would reveal several other glaring weaknesses in Mr. Modi’s vision. Interlinking of rivers is a concept that is fraught with ecological risk, displacement of local populations, changing the geography of the nation and no evidence to support the drought-mitigation and flood alleviation benefits. How do you persuade a river to flow to drought-prone area 1000 metres above sea-level when minimal lifts are planned? Would you suspend gravity?
Similarly the proposed introduction of new IITs, IIMs and AIIMs in every state is an initiative so poorly thought out, it’s almost laughable. I have studied in an IIT for 5 years and am currently in a different IIT for an MBA. I got the opportunity to join several of the 6 new IIMs which were started in 2010-2012. I decided to not join those institutes because of the infrastructure and faculty deficiencies which they face. It will take years of planned investment to get these new institutions to the level of the original 5 IITs and 6 IIMs. Why create more of the same? Does the government allocate enough funds to education to support the growth of so many institutions? No. Why dilute the brand equity which has been earned over so many years? A much better option would be to invest the same cash in the existing new IITs, new IIMs and NITs. However that would not make the headlines. Mr. Modi likes his headlines.
The government has also planned to allocate Rs.500 crores for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the valley. At the same time he has allocated Rs.100 crores for women’s safety and it’s “Beti Padhao” Yojana. I guess the problems of Kashmiri Pandits outweigh female security issues in the country by a factor of 5. No one denies the travails of the Hindu minority in Kashmir over the decades of insurgency. But after years of state apathy, when so many families have learnt to live with their misery, suddenly the government wakes up and decides to displace them again. How would it affect the secessionist elements in Kashmir? Would we see a rise in violence again or maybe an outbreak of fundamentalism like we witness in UP today? Why stir the pot? Why not offer them employment in government institutions instead as some sort of compensation? And clearly the focus on women’s safety with the massive Rs.100 crore outlay will ensure that women feel safe to venture out into the streets of Delhi at night? But maybe that’s the point - Modi’s Bharat doesn’t want to liberate its Betis. It’s a question of honour.
Skewed priorities plague decision making at the highest levels of this government. It’s high time they wake up to the fact that they only have five years.
Ashish Kashyap graduated with a Masters in Computer Science from IIT Madras. He spends his time wishing he could write like Milan Kundera.