This week’s Economist says that the one thing growing faster than the economy is the hype in India, and warns of overheating. Having struggled with 3% growth for over 30 years and with barely 6% for another 10, surely 8% plus, sustained for over 14 quarters, does deserve some degree of preening. For us, the older generation, this is some redemption of the years of public service, of waiting for things to happen, of things to right themselves.
Middle-class home, postgraduation in science in the early 1960s, no management schools yet, nor any indigenous industry, there were only two options—to teach or to join the civil service. One started with teaching and competed for the other, genuinely feeling that there lay an opportunity to participate in great happenings. A Rs400 salary seemed the earth. At the training academy, and in the districts, one was enthused by what others were doing. To quote Wordsworth: “Oh! times, /In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/ Of custom, law, and statute, took at once/ The attraction of a country in romance!”
The focus in the early years was on community blocks, and on gramsevaks who advised villagers on farming, animal husbandry, health, and even personal matters, having been trained in state-level institutes. Programmes in agriculture, education, animal husbandry, irrigation, et al., reached the masses through block-level functionaries. We were untiringly in attendance in the villages, proud of competing with other blocks in the delivery of services.
The green revolution brought specialization and technology, and over the next decade, we saw the stratification of the departments of education, agriculture, irrigation and public health in administrations that got stuck in the trap of protecting turfs. Blocks decayed, as did local bodies. We struggled to reinvent ourselves—the mantra was specialization. The Centre became concerned with industrialization (the public-sector model), finance (state-owned banks) and energy (public companies). The rural population was left to the state governments. In Tamil Nadu, we saw the rise of regional parties that focused on noon meals at schools, childcare, and literacy. Other states meandered.
Delhi was the place to be, to learn the multilateral agency lingo, to deal with industry and finance, to talk economics. The Rajiv Gandhi government tried hard to bring the villages back into focus, through the panchayat raj amendments, but to us in the bureaucracy and to the new, safari-suited politicians, ‘modern India’ was more interesting. The reform budgets of 1991 to 1993 squeezed public spending in education, health, agriculture and irrigation, and opened up opportunities in commerce, trade-in-services, and the knowledge economy. We took to it like ducks to water, drafting new bills for TRIPs compliance, cutting tariffs, expanding trade, easing capital flows, ‘reforming’.
So. Here we are. Growing with the best of the countries, a big investment destination, per-capita incomes doubling every 13 years, poverty levels dropping in the absolute, and, indeed, preening.
This story was written at a cost. The share of agriculture in GDP is falling, and over 400 million living off it are getting poorer. If the Eleventh Plan targets agriculture growth, at best, at 4%, and the entire economy at 8% or more, then those in the villages will be worse off at the end of it.
And if for every 10 million who complete over eight years of education every year, an equal number stay illiterate, we have a serious problem. There’s talk about reforms in agriculture, but few ideas and little action.
I look back at the time spent in block offices and panchayats and wonder why public services are no longer available for more than half the nation. We were there only three decades ago, but I do not see my colleagues or my political bosses there. The reform needed, is in governance, in ensuring that the talk is delivered in reality, and I hope that in the coming months, we can look at several areas where this is easily possible, with a little effort, and indeed, with a little love for the common man.
S Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic advisor to the Prime Minister of India. Do send us your reactions at firstname.lastname@example.org