There is a widespread perception of policy paralysis in the corridors of power. The two remaining years of the UPA's term is still not too short to reverse the current drift, but time is rapidly running out. The damaged economy needs urgent fixing as does restoring the credibility of an executive racked by scandals and the absence of a sense of direction. The people of the country long for clean, decisive governance. But what is less widely recognised is that they also seek a leadership which is caring.
When the UPA was emphatically returned to power in 2009, confounding most predictions, what decisively weighed with the people was not the pace of 'economic reforms' or even economic growth, nor the successful negotiation of the nuclear deal. I believe that it was programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which despite implementation flaws, still offered India's poorest people a dignified alternative to starvation, debt, bondage and distress migration, which most influenced the millions left out of India's growth story, when they pressed the ballot button.
It is to the essentials of just and caring governance that the UPA must return if it has any claim to a third term of power. To begin with, it must end the disastrous symbolism of a government willing to let food rot in its warehouses, or export it at subsidised rates, but not distribute it to masses who toil but sleep hungry and malnourished. The first and highest priority of this government must be the early passage of the Food Security Bill.
All or most households should be covered by subsidised food. The law would also guarantee feeding and nutrition programmes for small children, school meals, universal maternity entitlements, destitute feeding and soup kitchens for subsidised cooked meals to migrants and homeless persons. Any further procrastination will render impossible the rolling out of the complex implementation architecture of this ambitious programme of social protection, in the two years left for this government.
Equally important is to address the distress of farmers, who continue to languish in poverty and despair, manifested in unabated farmers' suicides. The revival of agriculture would require basic income support and insurance especially for the small and middle farmers; a massive expansion of farm credit; a guarantee of purchase of all farmers' produce at remunerative minimum support prices; and a major expansion of watershed development programmes. It is also imperative to revive the agenda of land reforms for the landless poor and tenants.
Decisive action is needed on corruption to build early consensus with the political opposition and diverse citizen opinion for the early passage of a law to establish a strong, independent and accountable lokpal, along with a comprehensive basket of anti-corruption measures. These include long-delayed electoral, administrative and judicial reforms and measures for effective grievance redressal at the levels of the village and city settlement.
There is also need for extensive backroom lobbying with the UPA, the Left and the BJP, to mobilise sufficient support for early passage of the Women's Reservation Bill, and a comprehensive law against sexual violence. For Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the government must establish ironclad systems to ensure sufficient flow of budgetary resources to enable them to bridge the development gaps. A strengthened SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act would better protect them from continued violence. A special programme would be in order to guarantee basic services of clean water, sanitation, child-care centres and roads to all SC and ST settlements.
In addition, tribal people desperately require effective amendments and implementation of the Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, which restores their control over their lands, natural resources and governance systems. They would also benefit from the early passage and implementation of laws which give a much fairer deal to persons affected and displaced by land-acquisition and mining.
The UPA promised in 2004 a law to prevent communal violence, but it has not been able to muster the political nerve to introduce a strong bill which would make public officials accountable for failures to protect people in communal riots. Other measures for religious minorities should include universal scholarships for all children from religious minorities excluding wealthy groups; a special programme of residential schools, including for girls, in all minority blocks; and guarantee of basic services in all minority settlements.
In India's troubled conflict areas, a healing touch would require a new commitment to human rights, including by ending and punishing encounter killings and torture, and abrogating laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Public Safety Act, Disturbed Areas Act and other preventive detention laws. This would spur a new mood of reconciliation in these states.
There is need for substantial increases in investment in public health services (and not private health insurance); and a programme for free or affordable generic medicines, building on the successful experiment in Rajasthan. The early passage of an improved Social Security Bill for Unorganised Workers, a universal old age pension; and unconditional income transfers to families of persons with disabilities, will reach out to other disadvantaged groups. For the millions who migrate to cities, programmes and laws which guarantee land tenure rights and basic services to slum residents and to street vendors, would enable them to escape the violence, State oppression and squalor that characterise the lives of the urban poor.
What ordinary people hope from their governments is not just that they will control prices, promote economic growth and offer clean governance. They expect support in their daily struggles to build a life of dignity, justice and ultimately hope. It is this expectation that governments, once elected, most easily forget.
Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed by the author are personal.