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Welcome 2017: We asked 12 thought leaders what they expect from the new year

HT asked thought leaders across the fields -- national security, economy, films, environment -- to tell us what they are hoping for in 2017.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2017 12:56 IST
HT Correspondents

What do you hope for? That’s what we asked some of India’s biggest thought-leaders. Their answers were, by turns, hopeful and pragmatic, ambitious and unforgiving. Will we see an awakening on environment and an India proactive on the global stage? Greater internet security, or scrutiny? How about more new faces on the big screen? Read on.

"Tax terrorism will be the biggest danger in the coming days"
Rajiv Kumar,
Senior Fellow at thinktank Centre for Policy Research, and director of the Pahle India Foundation, on Economy

The new year will start with the shadow of demonetisation looming large over it. The unprecedented measure requires immediate follow-up on two fronts — to overcome its significant contractionary impact on aggregate demand, and to maximise potential benefits by curbing future generation of black incomes and corruption.

For shoring up aggregate demand, the government must use any additional fiscal space it can find to substantially raise public capital expenditure, and focus this expenditure on launching an ambitious and time-bound programme of affordable workers’ housing in urban locations across the country.

Construction has a large number of linkages with the rest of the economy and generates strong multiplier effects. A time-bound programme to build, say, a million affordable houses, would greatly contribute to raising overall demand levels. It would also help generate much-needed employment.

At the same time, public expenditure may also be increased on other physical infrastructure sectors like roads, railways and telecom connectivity. All these public sector investments, if announced in the forthcoming budget, will surely attract private investment, which is the key to further growth.

Growth should also be spurred by increasing the net disposable income in the hands of the common consumer. A reduction in income-tax rates both for individuals and corporations, taking advantage of the larger tax base post-demonetisation, would achieve this objective. A lowering of tax rates must, however, be accompanied by a thorough rationalisation and simplification of the direct tax regime, to improve compliance.

At the same time, discretionary behaviour on the part of tax officials must be minimised, if not eliminated. Tax terrorism will be the biggest danger in the coming days. This must be prevented at all costs and the CBDT should now undertake the long-overdue reform of its department.

Similarly, measures to eliminate political corruption will have to be taken. The sooner the political parties, led by the party in power, agree to submit themselves to RTI and adopt 100% cashless donations, the better.

The coming budget must focus on these follow-up steps and at the same time give real succour to the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise or MSME sector. It has to be given far better access to formal credit and external markets.

If these steps are taken in the immediate post-demonetisation period, India could enter into a sustained period of high and inclusive growth with low inflation. This is an outcome that PM Narendra Modi must go for. Nothing short of this will suffice.

— As told to Anesha George

"We must strive to shape events rather than wait and watch"
Shyam Saran
Ex-foreign secretary and former chair of the National Security Advisory Board, on India and the World

2017 is one year when there are perhaps more reasons to fear crises, whether political or economic, than any other in recent times.

There will be political uncertainty with a new Trump administration taking office in the US. There is growing uncertainty about how the Chinese economy is shaping up, and whether China is in a position to manage it. The Middle East remains a region in considerable turmoil.

Several other issues will play out in that part of the world — the US attitude to Israel under Trump; the consequences of the Syrian conflict which may be coming to a denouement.

And finally, we will see a Russia with a much higher international profile as its economy recovers, its relationship with the West changes, and its role in key regions of the world increases.

It would thus be prudent for us to anticipate multiple political and economic crises, erupting at the same time. The external environment for India will be more complex, and will require deft handling.

The usual response to anticipated crises is to hunker down, and wait to see it blow over. It is to go into ‘don’t-do-anything’ mode.

But the more intelligent response is to anticipate what the likely scenarios are going to be, and proactively deal with them. This may sound counter-intuitive, but we should determine the areas of concern and remain engaged even if the consequences are not immediately clear. This gives us a better opportunity to shape events, and to anticipate how things are likely to develop and prepare for the developments.

And so, even if there are ethical issues with the Trump administration, India should make an effort to strongly engage with it rather than wait. There is far greater reason to be engaged with the Chinese at the leadership level too, and I think there has been a certain slackness on our part here.

In the Middle East, we must engage with major actors like Iran, Syrian leadership, Gulf kingdoms and Turkey, even if there is internal flux there. Working with them may lower the negative consequences for us if the situation worsens. And as Russia’s profile increases, we must take that into account and closely watch the key areas that concern us — be it the Russia-China relationship or Russia’s role in the Middle East.

As told to Prashant Jha

"We need a Digital India push for healthcare"
Sangita Reddy,
Joint managing director of the Apollo Hospitals Group, on Health

The PM has made a historic push to bring financial services and the larger economy under the digital ecosystem. We need a similar push for healthcare.

Digital health will be an effective enabler to ensure that all Indians have access to healthcare, interoperable medical records and continuity of care and will help provide data sets on disease and morbidity that can help align resources with needs.

But we can’t speak of digital health without an enabling language for it. We are hoping that standards for electronic medical records, and the formation of the National e-Health Authority, NeHA, will be hastened in order to take that digital leap in healthcare.

We are hoping for a stellar budget from the finance minister in 2017. Incentives for people to take health insurance through an increase in tax deductibles, larger provisioning for deductibles for health checks and an easing in lending rates for hospitals to set up health infrastructure are on top of our wish list.

India has the potential to become the world’s leading manufacturer and supplier of medical devices. This is in line with the government’s Make in India initiative. An enabling environment that helps global manufacturers set up base here for manufacturing — both for local consumption and exports — would be welcome and would help make India a health knowledge hub and also provide avenues for employment.

I do hope that in 2017 we can roll out a health insurance scheme that will cover all Indians. The government has been working on such a scheme and it is time it became a reality.

The government must strengthen primary healthcare through innovative PPP models, telemedicine and digital health. Prevention health checks should be expanded to include rural populations, since the scourge of non-communicable diseases is a rising trend in rural and urban areas.

As told to Rhythma Kaul

"Indian feminism will cut across more lines, include more men in 2017"
Urvashi Butalia,
Feminist, historian, and founder-CEO of Zubaan Books, on Gender

I think 2016 was a mixed bag for Indian women. One negative was the inaction with respect to recognizing marital rape as a criminal offence. But there were positives — activists gaining entry to the Shani Shingnapur temple, the implementation of the Bombay high court ruling in favour of women entering the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali dargah. The judgment on triple talaq was also a step ahead in women’s fight for equality in India.

I have no specific answers for what I would like to see in 2017 insofar as the fight against gender injustice is concerned. An ideal development would be the demise of misogyny and violence against women, and for women to have equal rights. But this will not happen, because there is so much left to fight for. Having laws in place helps, but at the end of the day, it is our mindsets that need change.

That said, Indian feminism has transitioned and come such a long way in 40-odd years. The movements against triple talaq and women having unequal access to places of worship are outcomes of a social push for change. These were movements that galvanised Indians.

The immunity once enjoyed by perpetrators of sexual violence is also waning. The changes we are seeing, and will see, would not have been if not for the feminist movement.

So while I do not foresee macro changes in the year ahead, I do think Indian feminism will cut across more lines of religion, economic status, caste, and class. The movement that pushed for a change in our rape laws — and won — will become stronger. I also think more men will associate with the feminist movement. Greater integration of Indian men in the feminist movement is what I hope for.

As told to Roshni Nair

"I want to see the union sports ministry run by an expert"
Harsha Bhogle,
Cricket commentator and journalist, on Sport

Here’s my wishlist for the one aspect of life that brings more smiles than any other, to a world racked by uncertainty and insecurity. Sport is the most beautiful escape of our times and these are five things I believe would make 2017 more pleasant. I know we like to rank things, put priorities on lists, but please don’t. This is in no order of desire.

1. I want to see Saina Nehwal back and playing at her best; not just because I have admired her journey and her pluck but because it would be fabulous to see India ruling the world, or almost doing so, with Saina and Sindhu who is going to get better and better. Two Indian women atop the world would be a telling statement, not just to the world, but to us.

2. Football is the world’s number one sport and India cannot linger on the periphery. Talent is hardly ever geographically exclusive and there is no reason Indians cannot play football instead of merely venting anger upon each other over clubs based in Europe. I want to see one pan-India football league so that investment can grow, players can be nurtured. It might mean breaking with the past, but progress lies in looking ahead.

3. I want to see the union sports ministry run by an expert, by someone who will be very proud to be in that job, not someone who is likely to be miffed by a ‘minor’ portfolio in the larger political game. This is not about specific people but about a political reality. Nandan Nilekani was brilliant with the Aadhar scheme. There are many who can do the same for Indian sport. I would begin the search with Geet Sethi.

4. I hope for an incident-free year in Indian cricket, off the field. The events have hurt us tremendously. I wish for greater trust, less conflict, an understanding that a contrary point of view doesn’t imply conspiracy or mutiny. When sport spends too much time in court, you know you are on the wrong path. Indian cricket is poised to reach great heights, you need everyone pulling together.

5. For April, May and June, a great IPL strengthening its position as the world’s most aspirational league and a win in the Champions Trophy in England.

"Let’s embrace classical and folk art, erase boundaries, speak from the heart"
Imtiaz Ali,
Filmmaker, on Entertainment

What I would like to see in the coming year are directors and filmmakers showing more courage. Films are the result of an art of storytelling and these stories should come from the heart. Let directors make films not by assessing market situations, let the market adjust itself to new kinds of films and new forms of the art.

As directors, we have a greater responsibility to speak from our hearts than most people do, and we must begin doing that. What I would also like to see are filmmakers change their style and form. Let directors make short films, let short-filmmakers make ad films and let feature film directors explore theatre and vice-versa. It’s only going to prove to be healthy and bring fresh and new ideas to the table.

I would also like to see fresh talent, new directors and filmmakers. There’s space for more in this industry.

I’d like them to make short films, no matter how small a budget, and direct plays. That’ll make for their showreel, a kind of a portfolio to enter into the feature film industry. I see a lot of them doing it, but this practice needs encouragement.

I admire the existing actors and they have continuously shown courage to try new things and adapt to new roles and challenges. Let directors too, then, take to multiple and online platforms.

I also want our films to be more rural-friendly — stories of people who live in villages because we have to account for the larger part of our population that lives there.

I also want our films to portray and show classical and folk arts. For instance, I want to see mallkhamb and Mithila paintings in movies. They’ve been entertaining our population much before electronic media came into the picture and are not thriving now because we are ignoring them. What it’ll do is add a lot of texture, bounce and vitality to the current entertainment industry.

As told to Anubhuti Matta

"I wish we would realise what is at stake"
Sunita Narain,
Head of the Centre for Science and Environment, on Environment

Despite having laws that are aimed at curbing noise, air and water pollution, we’re only seeing the air get more poisonous, more rivers turn into sewage canals and industries that continue to burden them with toxic waste.

The problem is not to do with lack of laws; it is to do with their enforcement. And that’s what I would like to see — better and more active implementation of environment laws.

Along with me, I want everyone to recognise the problem of climate change, for everyone to realise that this is happening for real and that this threat needs urgent redress.

I want to see us try, together, to cut down on emissions. I also hope to see us give locals more rights over natural resources, particularly forests. That’s the only way I see our environment being managed effectively.

But I think what we are likely to see instead is more uncertainty in the weather, an increase in pollution, more global and national insecurity when it comes to the environment.

We are still not realising what is at stake, and that is something I think we won’t see a change in, in the coming year.

As told to Anubhuti Matta

"Our institutions must not become more politicised than they already are"
Deepak Nayyar,
Emeritus Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and former Vice-Chancellor, University of Delhi, on Education

Educational opportunities for young people in India are too few. And the quality leaves much to be desired. In school education, learning outcomes are poor. Unless this changes, we are mortgaging our future. In higher education, we are far from a world of equal opportunities. What exists is nowhere near enough. And even what exists is not good enough. We need expansion, inclusion and excellence in higher education.

Our education system cries out for reform and change. This has been so for decades. And yet there is no movement. There are laws of inertia and there are vested political interests. Even so, I would like to see a new beginning in 2017. Of course, the process of change will take time to yield outcomes. Yet, if we could see the following improvements even in the next five years, it would be great.

I would like an improvement in the quality of education, especially in public institutions. Curricula across a majority of universities have barely changed in three decades. The University Grants Commission seeks to straitjacket institutions and harmonise curricula. Public universities have little or no autonomy. This needs to change if we want to get away from learning by rote to foster understanding and promote thinking among students. Universities should be about creativity, independence, pluralism, debate and dissent. Our primary objective must be higher standards in our education system.

Our institutions cannot afford to become more politicised than they already are, whether when it comes to regulation, appointments, curricula, or administration. The intrusion of political process in universities has already done far too much damage.

I am also concerned about the state of social sciences in colleges and universities. Fifty years ago, you had institutions across the country offering excellent social science courses in economics, politics, history, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines: Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Pune, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Jaipur and many more. Alas, now, good quality teaching and research in the social sciences is mostly concentrated in Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Delhi. In this milieu, social sciences cannot prosper.

In our quest for excellence in the social sciences, we must recognise that knowledge is developing at the intersection of disciplines. And it is time to get away from departmental silos which become dividing walls that often obstruct learning.

Social sciences can become vibrant once again only if two conditions are satisfied. First, we must encourage critical inquiry so that social scientists can be independent intellectuals in the public domain who can question conventional wisdom, ideological beliefs and intrusive governments. Second, it is essential that learning opportunities be made available in languages other than English. This, I think, is key.

As told to Roshni Nair

"I hope to see more soup kitchens, homeless shelters, access to Internet"
Harsh Mander,
Writer, activist and former member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), on Poverty and Rural India

This was the year demonetisation wrecked rural India. Not only are there not enough banks and ATMs in the hinterland, but so many rural Indians don’t even have bank accounts. Farmers have taken a beating selling produce at abysmally low rates; dairy farmers can’t sell their milk, and middlemen can’t pay workers and labourers.

India was already facing an agrarian crisis; this has compounded it.

Because people are also losing jobs as a result, job creation is of utmost importance. Foreign Direct Investment has done little in this respect, despite what the government would have you believe.

In 2017, I would like to see more public investment to help build better rural infrastructure, improve public health, and help build and grow small and big businesses in rural India. Focus on agrarian growth — which has never been a priority for the government — is also a must. And more jobs should be created in semi-urban and rural areas to address distress migration.

My wish for a boost in rural infrastructure naturally includes better access to the internet. Internet penetration in India is just 27%, with a skew in favour of urban centres. If you are promoting the digital or cashless way of life, how will the majority of the population survive when they don’t even have access to the internet?

As for our cities, I would like to see more soup kitchens and affordable shelters built for the homeless.

But will this happen in the months to come? I doubt it.

Will the problems of rural India, from drought and crop failure to mounting farmer debt, be addressed? I cannot say. Will jobless, homeless people be given some reprieve by the state or Centre? I cannot say. But I do fear that polarisation and alienation of those who question the government will become the norm in 2017. 2016 was just the start.

As told to Roshni Nair

"Let’s go from obsessing about change to actively bringing it about"
Shiv Visvanathan,
Social scientist and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, on Politics

This year, I want to see a revival of civil society, and greater autonomy of universities. I’d like for people to stop the harassment of academics, and for us to go from having an obsession with change to actively being a part in bringing about change.

In addition to that, let’s not forget to hope for the revival of environment as an issue.

We’ve had a government that has behaved below expectations and we are likely to see it tamper with the cosmos of society — the constitution, syllabus and minorities such as tribals, Muslims etc.

The government does not understand science and that has resulted in creativity and autonomy of ordinary science being lost. The politics of energy will likely become more nuclear.

We’ll likely see a defeat of civil society in many more respects. The opposition will not be able to mobilise itself.

We’ll still be a country preoccupied with elections and will continue to be indifferent to rights. The formalisation of democracy will decline. It’ll be difficult to practice democracy in its real form and in its true sense.

As told to Anubhuti Matta

"What we need is more power to the people"
R Chidambaram,
Principal scientific adviser to the Government of India and former chairperson of the International Atomic Energy Commission, on Science

India is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to seeking more scientific knowledge. In 2017, I hope to see us become a large knowledge-driven economy. This is a continuous process, where we innovate and create, and also keep learning, to put the knowledge that we garner to good use in our society.

To my mind, one of the major sectors in science that needs advancement is energy. The United Nations defines the human development index on the basis of three indicators — per capita gross domestic product (GDP), life expectancy at birth, and adult literacy rate.

I think India needs to depend upon just two factors — per capita electricity consumption and female literacy rate. Our electricity consumption has to go up by six to eight times for us to achieve complete development and, of course, there is no advancement without gender equality and justice.

So to ensure that we do fare better in the energy sector, we need to use more renewable energy sources. We can rely on advanced ultra-super-critical thermal plants for this, which, although not zero-carbon-emitting, do use relatively less coal.

One of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century is energy security and climate change, both of which must be addressed in the coming year. We are well on our way to development as long as we continue to have a thriving research and innovative ecosystem in the country.

As told to Anesha George

"We’re going to see big changes in security, privacy laws"
Nikhil Pahwa,
Founder and owner of digital news portal MediaNama and co-founder of savetheinternet.in, on Technology

The year 2017 is going to see big changes in terms of security and privacy laws in the country.

I am not privy to the communication technology plans of the Big 3 — Google, Facebook and Microsoft — but we might see online content regulation come into play as the government looks to reinstate in some form Section 66A of the IT Act, which penalised ‘offensive’ online posts and which has been cited or quoted in different court cases. Offences under Section 66A carried convictions of up to three years in jail, but the Section was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015.

Now, it seems likely that it will return in some form, as citizens embrace platforms such as WhatsApp and YouTube, which can lead to misrepresentation of facts for inciting communal violence or propagating hate messages. Also, with platforms like Facebook making headlines due to fake news, the Indian government might look to nip that phenomenon in the bud.

Further, led by demonetisation and RBI policy changes, most e-wallet companies are going to face trouble as policy changes are most likely to benefit banks. The wallets are going to see their market contract. Also, because of the overall impact of demonetisation on the economy, 2017 is going to be bad for startups. The negative impact on economy will make it hard for small and medium-sized business to borrow money from investors.

However, this very effect will also see the market consolidate in terms of wallets and other tech-related startups.

Cybersecurity will also take a lead when it comes to policy decisions as the country tries to adapt digital payments and make them more secure for citizens.

As told to Anirban Ghoshal