The basic challenge of our time is to ensure that wealth creation is not only tempered by equity and justice but is harnessed to the goal of removal of poverty and development for all,” declared Dr Manmohan Singh in his famous July 24, 1991 budget speech.
Twenty years have passed since Dr Singh came to be recognized as the architect of the economic reform story in India but the challenge of either the goal of removal of poverty or development for all is far from over. The challenge has actually become bigger, tougher, and more complex, with no easy solutions in hand.
Ironic as it is, nobody is celebrating the 20 years of reforms era including Dr Singh himself. This is because the ground reality today is that the reform story, despite its many successes, faces the biggest credibility test: the ever growing chasm between the haves and have-nots.
It is a throwback to either the regulatory powers reigning supreme or a total policy paralysis for fear of being caught in the twin spin of judicial and media activism, a space created due to the total governance failure in the second stint of Dr Singh at the top job.
Dr Singh’s supporters are out to trot some numbers but the significance of these is lost on the fast gaining view that the poor became poorer and rich became richer during the last 20 years.
This has pitch-forked Dr Singh and his reform policy as the villain.
Consider the following: Estimates say between a low of 37% (Tendulkar Committee) and a high of 77% (Arjun Sen Gupta committee report) Indians live in poverty (these are figures drawn from government appointed committees). For company they have about 25 to 35 dollar billionaires (Credit Suisse Wealth Report 2010). The same report said there were 1,080 Ultra High Networth Individuals (HNIs) in the wealth strata of $50 million-$500 million and 7,800 HNIs in the wealth strata $10 million-$50 million.
Worse, India’s performance in the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI), which is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide, has got worse in last two decades, receding from 95 in 1990 to 119 in 2010. Yes, there is a counter figure as well: 390 million Indians now belong to the middle class; one-third of them have emerged from poverty in the last 10 years. At the current rate of growth, a majority of Indians will be middle-class by 2025.
But the truth of the curse of poverty in the country is as cold as death. It is visible all over like a scar on our psychology. Blaming it purely on the reform programme is being as simplistic as it is a wishful thinking that more reforms would redeem India of all its problems.
Lack of nuance in our public debate as also Dr Singh’s inexplicable silence in wake of falling credibility of his government due to a plethora of corruption scandals has only added to his woes. The PM has made it worse for himself and his paltry supporters by repeatedly saying “he has a job to do”. The truth gaining ground is that he has merely a job to keep.
Management thinker Subroto Bagchi wrote in ‘The Professional’ that “if you qualify to be called a professional than you should be able to self certify completion of your work without supervision. And that is all about integrity. That is how only a true professional as opposed to a tactical climber can scale the summit of his profession and remain there.”
Dr Singh, time you switched off for a while, to self-introspect. If not anything else, you might as well let us know how would you like to be remembered for posterity?