Pranab Mukherjee’s first address to Parliament as president is a reaffirmation of the reforms undertaken by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) since his elevation to the highest office of the land. There is reference to some very tough decisions the Union government has taken, even at the cost of splintering the ruling coalition, to get the economy back on track. It is also a message that the tempo of reforms that acquired pace at the fag end of the UPA’s second term is unlikely to flag in an election year. The economic prospects facing the nation simply do not permit it. Mr Mukherjee admits economic growth has fallen off its high plateau of the previous decade and assures lawmakers the government is doing all it can to correct the situation. An aspirational young India needs more opportunities than provided by the current rate of growth but the trend line will depend on the extent the nation can take difficult decisions about managing its economy.
Some of the really tricky choices will crop up in how we build infrastructure and a social security net. Chunky sections of the president’s address are, thus, devoted to government initiatives in infrastructure and human development. Mr Mukherjee sees the groundwork for a bigger push being laid in some of the legislative business in this budget session of Parliament. These include the land acquisition and food security bills and the enabling legislation for a uniform countrywide goods and services tax. Direct welfare transfers through Aadhaar and a Cabinet committee to speed up clearance for infrastructure projects can alter delivery outcomes significantly. Mr Mukherjee also emphasises farm productivity — agriculture growth in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan has averaged 3.7%, up from 2.4% in the Tenth Plan — and factory employment — manufacturing’s share of the gross domestic product is expected to climb to 25% in a decade, which should create 100 million new jobs.
The president’s preoccupation with the quality of governance comes through in a slew of Bills the government is trying to enact in a hurry: the Whistle Blowers’ Protection Bill, the Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and Officials of Public International Organisations Bill, the Citizens’ Right to Grievance Redress Bill, and the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, besides amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act to punish the guilty and protect honest public servants better. The frontier for economic reforms has shifted to governance and Parliament must put in place a mesh of laws that improves oversight of policies to push growth and income redistribution.