Tuesday, July 31, 2018

4 Years Of Modi Sarkar - What Do We Know, What Have We Learnt?

4 years ago, the NDA government stormed to power in India with a massive mandate for development and Achhe Din, with the charismatic leader Narendra Damodar Modi at the helm. Tired of rampant corruption, all pervasive inefficiencies, and divisive communal politics, the nation wanted change, and it chose a newbie on the national scene, the CM of Gujarat, a chaiwallah as he was dismissively referred to by his political opponents, as its messiah.

As we head into the next general elections in 2019, the shrill voices of opposition are screaming with bursting lungs, and narratives like cow lynching rule social media, taking over front pages of national dailies, and dominating debates on prime time TV. This narrative is driven not just by Nigerian bots, but by a lot of folks unnerved by the change, the prospect of "business as usual" getting more and more difficult to execute as in the "good ol' days" when a little exchange under the table guaranteed movement of the files in whichever direction was convenient.

This article isn't an attempt to whitewash ground realities. And even if it were, who cares, right? Neither is it a whitepaper on state of the union. I am not an economist, nor a statistician, nor a CA. I am bad with numbers and statistics. Heck, I can't even file my own IT returns.

All this article aims to do is give you some (ghotalaless) fodder to munch on. Yes, it's meant to dispel some of the negativity about the state of our country being layered on our minds day in and day out. It's meant to question some of the narratives being peddled by disgruntled, and sometimes, well-intentioned but misinformed experts.  But at the end of the day, I guess, it's just an article I wrote for myself, because, well, we are still a wonderful democracy where free speech is valued and respected!

Let's take a look at some of the key initiatives and developments that have happened in the last 4 years. To be fair, some of these seeds were sown much earlier, and we should gratefully acknowledge that. We didn't do so badly as a country in 70 years after all - the liberalization ushered in by Manmohan Singh in the 90s was truly a key turning point. But let's come back to 2014-18.

One of Modi's early flagship initiatives was Swachh Bharat. Has it been successful? Yes, we still have dirty garbage bins, most of our cities and towns have poor segregation at source. Recycling is still in its infancy. By UN estimates, more than 500 million Indians were doing it in the open in mid 2017! The government's sustained efforts have resulted in 260 districts and over 3 lakh villages declared ODF. For all the claims of being open defecation free, a lot of our villagers and townsfolk still line the railway tracks every morning.

That's an easy way to ignore the real deal - the fact that cleanliness is on the agenda like never before. Ordinary citizens join Afroze Shah in Mumbai in droves every weekend to clean up the beaches. Cities like Indore have truly cleaned up their act, with support from the administration and the citizens alike. Public spaces have dustbins, mechanized sweepers are starting to become a not-so-unusual sight any more in some of our bigger cities. Littering in public will earn you an angry stare. The biggest change is in the youngsters. It's not unusual to see small kids reprimanding their grandparents for dropping chocolate wrappers on the roads. If ever there was a slogan to rival Quit India, it could very well be Swachh Bharat. When Bollywood rakes in 300 Crores on a low budget movie titled "Toilet - Ek Prem Katha", you can believe the hype is real.

That brings me to Smart Cities. Having been part of the Smart City competition 3 years back as part of Team Pune, and to some extent, Team Panaji, I had the privilege to be very closely associated with the planning and vision behind this massive initiative. Launched in 2015 with a budget of  98,000 crores, it requires each city to create a special purpose vehicle (SPV) headed by a full time CEO, to implement the Smart City Mission. This urban renewal program is managed by the Ministry of Urban Development, working closely and directly with municipal commissioners. A lot of people thought this was too much money wasted on fancy ideas. But here's the deal. When we talk of municipal and corporation budgets, this isn't too much money at all. Many large cities have annual budgets larger than that. Pune's annual budget for 2018-19 is a massive 5870 Cr, whereas it's Smart City budget for 10 years was a shade under 3500 Cr. So then what is the big deal all about?

In my opinion, the real deal here is the successful partnership of government, administration, industry and citizens in ideation, innovation and evangelizing of smart living and smart infrastructure in cities that hitherto struggled with 3rd world problems. It was in driving home the belief that we could do it too. If 100 cities tried 20 ideas each, even if many of them were similar, we are looking at quite a few proven, success stories, on the ground, that could be replicated easily across the country. And it wasn't about the government pushing in more funds for developing urban areas. The key was to get citizens to think for themselves, and focus on areas that made sense for them. While Pune might have wanted more public spaces and efficient garbage disposal, Panaji might look at public transport and sustainability, while Amritsar might want to focus on reducing pollution!

Has it been successful? Decide for yourself. Pune has started reconfiguring roads in the Aundh Baner Balewadi area (around 22 kms at an estimated budget of around 300 Cr) to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians, a complete U turn from less than a decade ago when footpaths were being trimmed to make bigger roads. Visit Aundh in Pune and see the difference for yourself. With focus on making footpaths community spaces that provide safety, shade and social interactions, Pune's urban street guidelines are revolutionary in approach. Would you have really expected a public cycle sharing scheme to succeed in India? In Pune, in just the first 4 months since launch, over 3.5 lakh trips were logged, even when the roads and spaces are still some way away from being cycle friendly. There is a hunger in people for change, and for the first time, it seems a distinct possibility.

The metro is the fulcrum around which public transit works in most Western cities. As someone who spent 2 years living in Mumbai in the late 90s, the railways were proof that such fancy AC metro coaches with sliding doors would never work in India. With 11 cities running a metro rail system, and at least another 39 planned, we can only hope for much better days to come.

Now take smart streets, public ride sharing bicycles and the metro, and you probably won't need a car for your office commute. The Pune Smart City Development Corporation aims to reduce usage of private 2 wheelers and cars on the roads from 47% to 10%, and increase use of non motorized transport (walking and cycling) to 50% by 2031. Smart city? I think so!

Take something as simple and brilliant as neem coated urea. Not only does the neem allow slow release and hence better yield of the fertilizer, and acts as a bio pesticide, but coating the urea with neem prevents illegal diversion of the heavily subsidized urea for industrial purposes. It is believed that in 2017, over 20 lakh less tonnes of urea were consumed compared to the previous year, in spite of record food production. One doesn't need to think too hard to imagine where the difference must have been used!

Now let's move to a trickier topic, demonetization. Economists and statisticians can masturbate at lengths about the efficacy of this measure, but there is no doubt that tax compliance has increased, and significant black money was unearthed. Anyone expecting flawless execution, with zero hiccups, and 100% effectiveness, is living in an utopian world. But what was the real gain for the country from this? In my opinion, it was again the can do spirit the government demonstrated, and citizens supported, knowing it was for a good cause. Now, let's add linking of Aadhar to everything from our phone numbers and bank accounts, to our life insurance policies. We all agree, it caused tremendous stress and some hardships to a lot of people. But millions of fake beneficiaries have been identified and eliminated to a large extent, and with direct benefit transfer, lakhs of crores of rupees have been delivered to the real beneficiaries instead of corrupt middlemen, officers and politicians. UIDAI claims that over 57,000 Cr have been saved in the last couple of years because of the Aadhar project, and this number can only grow. And don't forget the technological and operational excellence demonstrated by UIDAI. With more than a billion people under its fold, with biometric authentication, and sub-second response times in most cases, the achievement truly boggles the mind.

That brings me to the next big change - GST. This unified tax replaced multiple layers and types of indirect taxes, drastically simplifying the way business is done in the country. For example, inter state travel time for goods trucks has reduced by up to 20% after octroi and inter state taxes were abolished. With an average of 90,000 Cr collected every year, GST is not just a technical and financial master stroke, but it's also a living testament to the ability of this government to bring all states together to debate, discuss and finalize on such a widely impactful legislation in a truly collaborative manner.

With the PM being as technology savvy as he is, it was only natural that his cabinet ministers, and other government departments got into the act. And what a revolution it has been! From reporting traffic violations to appreciating the witty memes, police departments in Pune and Mumbai, and even from the state of UP for example, suddenly appear so much more approachable and citizen friendly. Municipal commissioners and corporations are quite active on social media, and whether you want to get garbage cleared or get potholes filled, a tweet usually works very well! And when I travel abroad, having the foreign minister and the entire force of the Indian government behind your back, at the tip of a tweet, just makes me feel like the Indian passport is a very precious commodity after all!

Now let's talk a little about the negatives. Lynching of "cow smugglers", increased incidences of rape and abuse, violence on campuses. Our TV channels have been ablaze with debates around this, our newspapers frequently report on these "hate crimes". An "international report" put India at the top of the "most dangerous countries for women", even beating Afghanistan, immediately becoming a subject of coffee table conversations in Lutyen's Delhi. And theories on how a Hindu Taliban will take over the country have been marketed quite effectively on social media.

We are a country of 1.3 billion people. A vast majority is poor. And crime happens. Shit happens. While every murder and rape deserves condemnation and strict punishment, one needs to take a data driven, factual view of what's happening. One can criticize the police force for being slow or partial. One can criticize the courts for being over-burdened. But the propensity of our media to color headlines with communal overtones whenever it suits their narrative, is the real danger for the country, and should be countered by asking why was the religion not mentioned in all the 35,000 murders that took place in the country? Why are only certain incidents of rape or arson highlighted, and not others? What is really happening?

Incidents of terror are at an all time low, and barring terror attacks on army camps and in J&K, and Maoist attacks in Naxal-infested areas, the country has seen a period of calm and peace in our main towns and cities. Communal riots are also at an all time low, and we can't even begin to compare with the horrors unleashed in the mid 80s and early 90s. While the world is battling Islamic terror, India's frontiers, barely a few hundred kilometers away from the epicenter, have remained generally safe and protected, and the 2016 surgical strikes went along a long way in reassuring the country, and warning our enemies, that the Indian armed forces weren't a sleeping giant, but a lean, mean fighting machine that you can take potshots at, but better not loiter around when it's irritated.

There are a lot of other good things happening. The Bullet train may still be some way off, the Hyperloop might be a pipe dream at this point, but a 3rd world country that dreams and aspires about these futuristic technical revolutions is no longer thought to be crazy. Massive social security projects, whether is is affordable housing or affordable health care and insurance, are being envisioned and executed as sustainable partnerships between industry, the government and the citizens, and not as schemes that depend on the government doling out subsidies and grants, most of which simply got sucked out of the system through unscrupulous agents and middle men. Acts like RERA are ushering a fundamental change in how digitization can help protect the interest of the aam aadmi.

2019 will be a point of inflexion for the nation. Either the 1.3 billion voters will continue to show faith in Narendra Modi's vision and plan for the country, or we will bring in an era of mahagathbandhans, (un?)holy alliances formed with the sole intention of keeping this man out of Indian politics.

How that will pan out for India, only time will tell.

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