To meet the national challenges of the future, minister of state planning, science and technology and earth sciences Ashwani Kumar says the opposition and the ruling party need not be at odds on every issue. In a wide-ranging interview with HT, Kumar suggests that all political parties should deny tickets to undesirable elements to cleanse the political system.
Q: The planning commission has come under criticism for its unrealistic poverty estimates and this has generated a national debate on the type of methodology to be used for defining poverty? Your reaction:
A: It is true that there is confusion about the way the poor need to be identified for the purposes of entitlements under the UPA government’s various flagship schemes. The genesis of this can be traced back to the recommendations of expert bodies mandated for the purpose from time to time. The Tendulkar committee recommendations which have attempted to scientifically define poverty did the right thing in focusing not only on the calories consumption per capita but also included factors such as housing etc. concluded that per capita consumption of Rs 26 per day for rural India and Rs 32 per day for urban areas could be taken as the poverty estimates. This is questioned by people as unrealistic figure. There is an element of truth in this perception. I believe that an issue as sensitive as poverty determination and amelioration, we should not treat the Tendulkar recommendations as cast in stone and not amenable to a review. In any case, government has since declared that these recommendations will not be used for purposes of delivering the entitlement of benefits to people under either the proposed Food Security Bill or other flagship programmes. Also the 2011 census of poverty will be based upon a more comprehensive index of deprivation so that the needy are not excluded from social welfare schemes. The UPA is committed to a realistic evaluation and appreciation of the poverty estimation issue. I must, however, reiterate that the level of poverty and destitution has significantly declined on account of high economic growth achieved by the nation under the UPA dispensation.
Q: Do you believe that corruption is today the single most important question that has caught the imagination of people and whether Anna Hazare can take credit for it?
A: Certainly instances of corruption by high political functionaries have eroded people’s faith in the credibility of the political class generally speaking. The events of the past few months created a sense of despondency leading to public angst against corruption. Mr Anna Hazare became the face of this angst but to say that initiatives to combat corruption are to be traced to his efforts would be completely misplaced. In recent months, a slew of measures to combat corruption came from Congress president Sonia Gandhi who in her Burari speech asked the government to eliminate ministerial discretion. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh followed it up by setting up of a GoM on the issue. Apart from the Lokpal Bill, the government is likely to be introduce seven other connected bills in the winter session of Parliament. Shri Rahul Gandhi’s call to give constitutional status to the proposed Lokpal shows UPA’s resolve to purposively address the issue. However, I am of the view that the first principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty as sanctified in our criminal and constitutional jurisprudence should be preserved.
Q: What are principal accomplishments of the UPA government?
A: Never before in the history of independent India did we have social and economic empowerment of the poor on a scale which we see today. MNREGA, RTI, RTE and now Food Security Bill individually and collectively present a unique example of a sensitive government. Steps towards normalisation of ties with Pakistan, Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, initiatives to combat corruption and communal violence and triumph of Indian diplomacy in the service of national aspirations are achievements of high order. When historians will record the UPA’s accomplishments, I am sure they would be far more charitable and honest than the opposition of today.
Q: What are principal challenges before the nation today?
A: Rise of international terrorism and its resurgence in our neighbourhood cannot be underestimated. The spread of Naxal terror to many districts is one of the gravest challenges for our internal security. The objective of ensuring balanced economic growth and protection of environment, ensuring food and energy security throughout the country remain a perennial challenge for the government. In this connection, the 12th five year plan approved in the NDC recently shows the path. The central premise of the plan is to achieve faster inclusive and sustainable growth which demands rational use of scarce water resources, energy conservation, increased electricity generation, gainful employment for youth and a huge focus on manufacturing and agriculture amongst others. We need to pay a special attention to secure the health of all our people. To meet future challenges, we need a functioning and constructive democratic polity in which the opposition and the ruling party need not be at odds on every issue, particularly those affecting the national security, foreign policy and key economic policy initiatives.
Q: What is the way forward?
A: We need to remind ourselves as citizens of this great country that at the end day the state exists for the people and not the vice versa. I am, therefore, by personal inclination inclined against a leviathan state that owes no apology to the basic rights of the people. It is, therefore, paramount for us to ensure that as we proceed to unfold new initiatives to ensure national security. We should do so consistent with the basic human rights of our citizens, including their right to privacy as enshrined in the constitution. We need to enact a specific privacy law to protect and ensure the citizen’s life of dignity.
Q: You are reported to have differed from the election commission’s view that in order to cleanse our political system, candidates against whom charges for specific offences have been framed should not be allowed to contest elections. What is the reason for your objection?
A: As a lawyer, I am trained to believe that no man can be assumed to be guilty until proven as such. Our constitutional jurisprudence rests on the presumption of innocence of individuals. We also know of the vulnerability of political persons to false and frivolous complaints and the inability of courts to quash false charges within the stipulated time for variety of reasons. In these circumstances, I believe that the functioning of the elected democracy will be prejudiced if politicians of long standing can be excluded from the electoral process without being convicted. The way forward is for all political parties to weed out undesirable elements at the time of ticket distribution for which the Congress party has taken the initiative.