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No matter what the PM advocates, public-private partnerships cannot solve India's development problems. Sitaram Yechury writes.

columns Updated: Jan 27, 2012 00:51 IST
Sitaram Yechury
Manmohan Singh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began 2012 by delivering two significant speeches. He spoke at the Indian Science Congress on January 3 and on January 10, released a report by some NGOs and corporates on the status of hunger and malnutrition in the country. Though the two speeches were on divergent issues, put together, they convey a disturbing approach towards realising India's potential.

Invoking the legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (whose 125th birth anniversary is on December 22, 2012) and Satyendranath Bose (the elusive search for a sub-atomic elementary particle bearing his name, Boson, that may revolutionise humanity's understanding of our universe, continues at the CERN laboratory's Large Hadron Collider experiment), the PM ended by candidly admitting that India's spending on scientific research and development (R&D) is "too low and stagnant". At present, we spend less than 0.9% of our GDP on R&D. The PM bemoaned that China has left us behind on this and urged that we should spend at least 2% of our GDP on R&D by the end of the 12th Plan period.

The PM's laudable objectives cannot be disputed. The problem lies in the method that he emphasised on to increase these expenditures. "This can only be achieved if industry, which contributes about one-third of the total R&D expenditure today, increases its contribution significantly." He then proceeded to rely significantly on this government's famous mantra - public-private partnership (PPP) - in achieving this objective. It is universally recognised that private interest in developing R&D is directly proportional to advancing its profit motive. This comes in direct contradiction with the PM's declared objective of the role of science in achieving inclusive development. He claimed that since it's easier to attract funds into applied research, his government would formulate a set of principles to push such private funding. To bolster this line of thinking, the PM bemoaned that "at present, publicly-funded R&D is skewed in favour of fundamental rather than applied research." Instead of strengthening R&D in fundamental research, the PM emphasised on PPP to bolster private profits. It would be impossible to nurture scientists of Ramanujan's and Bose's calibre if we continue with this line of thinking.

In his second address, the PM bemoaned that "the problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame". The report that he released showed that 42% of children (under-5) are underweight and 59% are stunted. However, these findings are nothing new. Reports of government agencies, whose coverage is much wider than the one that conducted the survey, have already established that the economic reforms ushered two decades ago by the then finance minister Manmohan Singh have only succeeded in creating two Indias with the economic differential between them widening sharply.

Half of India's children under the age of three are malnourished, which is worse than in Sub-Saharan Africa. Half of the children are not fully immunised and, thus, die due to diseases that are preventable. As far as health of the people is concerned, our total expenditure (both public and private) is less than the whole of Africa in terms of the percentage of the GDP. Even after 60 years of Independence, our sanitation conditions are woeful - almost 50% households don't have toilets.

The third edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), conducted after a gap of six years, has shown a worrisome increase compared to the findings of NFHS-2. The percentage of children aged between 6 to 35 months suffering from anemia rose from 74.2 to 79.2. For married women in the age group of 15-49, it rose from 51.8% to 56.2%. For pregnant women in the same age group, the incidence of anemia rose from 49.7% to 57.9%. This is the condition of our mothers and children.

Ironically, the PM heads the National Council on India's Nutritional Challenges. Among the various measures outlined by the government to tackle this malaise, one has been the universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). But it was done at the direction of the Supreme Court. Yet, over one-third of the posts of ICDS supervisors continue to remain vacant in the country. Crucial to the ICDS programme are the anganwadi centres. Over 1,10,000 anganwadi centres, from among the estimated 14 lakh, are unoperational. The conditions of most of the anganwadi centres are pathetic. Many do not have their own buildings (over 90% in Bihar). More than half do not have toilet or drinking water facilities.

Despite repeated protests and demands in Parliament to locate anganwadis with primary schools after legislating the compulsory right to education, the condition of the anganwadi workers remains woefully bad.

Tragically, the budget has not even allocated the required financial resources for the universalisation of ICDS. Instead, the effort again is to patronise PPP by privatising the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. India spends less than 1% of our GDP on public health. In fact, the 2G spectrum scam alone accounts for more than eight times of the R22,300-crore health budget.

The disturbing aspect of these speeches is that the government is relying on private initiative and furthering the infamous PPP model to correct such distortions. Unless, as repeatedly stated in these columns, the staggering amounts given as concessions (by foregoing legitimate tax revenue) to the corporates and the rich are collected and used for building our economic and social infrastructure - while creating large-scale employment through public investments - India's true potential cannot be realised.

(Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal.)