In an interview granted to the Hindustan Times, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “The biggest achievements of UPA-1 were the healing touch which we managed to bring in and the focus on inclusive growth.”
Strangely though, the Prime Minister did not go on to clinch his case by quoting the data made available recently in the first round of houselisting information published by the census commissioner of India. It showed that in the last decade—in which the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power for six of these years—Indians were materially better off; subsequently released data revealed that this story also held true for the socially disenfranchised scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs).
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Yet, not just Singh, but no political figure in the government or in the Congress party has so far sought to own this good news. Enigmatic, indeed, because the best proof of inclusion is the expanding list of stakeholders in the country’s growth process. It is another thing to say that this is not good enough, but one can’t certainly deny the politically enviable evidence.
So why would the UPA not want to own it?
Especially since it is struggling with the legacy of near double-digit inflation in the past two years, perceptible flagging of growth, inability to generate jobs and alleged acts of corruption. And with less than 24 months to go before the next general election, the UPA is desperately seeking to alter the narrative; but for the bumbling opposition, which has succeeded in kicking a gift horse in the mouth repeatedly, the UPA story would have unravelled sooner.
By proving that inclusion is working, albeit slowly and not uniformly, the UPA will be able to stave off the worst of its critics—some of whom are in the coalition.
Undoubtedly, it will give the UPA’s leadership the much needed firepower to push through a politically tough reform agenda.
Just look at what the two rounds of census numbers reveal.
According to the housing census data for 2011, released in March, rural India saw a significant improvement in the quality of houses just as it did in terms of access to drinking water; similarly, one in two households now accesses banking services compared with a little less than one in three in the 2001 census; nearly one in two rural households now owns a mobile phone compared with two out of three in urban households; one in three rural households now owns a television set compared with almost one in five a decade ago, while 76.7% urban households now have television sets, against 64.3% in 2001; cooking gas is now used by 11.4% rural households compared with 5.7% in 2001.
Then, in June, the census commissioner released the same data for the demography of SCs and STs.
With the exception of some variations across regions, like in the case of national houselisting data, SCs and STs demonstrated a visible improvement in their material well-being, especially in terms of their access to telecommunication and banking services—two key parameters to measure inclusion, or the effort to integrate the underdeveloped and underprivileged into the country’s economic mainstream.
In the case of SCs, access to banking services rose from about one out of every four persons in 2001 to one in two in 2011; for telephones, from three per 100 to one in two. Similarly, among STs, the proportion of those accessing banking services rose from a little under one in five persons in 2001 to a little under one in two in 2011; and for telephones, it rose dramatically from about two in 100 to one in three.
To be sure, material improvement in life does not mean that the poverty problem has been fixed. In the case of telecom, it is an outcome of technology and pricing that are bringing in new customers from the lower income strata; in the case of banking, the government has been pushing for financial inclusion.
Narendra Jadhav, a member of the Planning Commission and author of Untouchables, in an interview to Mint for the houselisting report, had candidly suggested: “There is much greater transformation taking place than what we care to admit,” before adding, “The broad-basing of the benefits of growth has given birth to new stakeholders.”
One can only, therefore, surmise as to why the UPA has so far not staked claim to these numbers flowing from the census.
It could presumably be because the data is a broadsword—cuts both ways; so if it suits the government now, there may be a new set of data that may show up the government politically.
Take, for instance, the general reluctance of the UPA to draw the right inferences from the employment data generated by the 66th round of the survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).
It showed that between 2004-05 and 2009-10, when India’s economic growth was at a peak, fewer than two million jobs were added—compared with the 55 million, aged between 15-59 years, who joined the workforce.
The same calculation shows that between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, the economy generated 62 million jobs.
The first response was to discredit the assessment and, later, the data.
Regardless, the UPA’s actions are surprising.
Alternatively, it may just be yet another instance of inertia in government.
As a cynical colleague quipped, “You give far too much credit; you think there is some serious analysis being undertaken in the government. None of this must be happening; it is pure neglect.”
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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