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The future is now

The time has come for the UPA government to address in right earnest the commitments made to the people in CMP, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2006 03:21 IST

The UPA government has completed more than half its term. The time has come to address in right earnest the commitments made to the people in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP). Apart from seeking to provide immediate relief to people on various scores, the Left has sought, through the CMP, an effort to change or shift the focus of economic reforms (so far solely preoccupied with bolstering corporate profits) towards improving people’s welfare.

For such a shift to materialise, massive public investment in key areas of social and economic infrastructure is required. With this in mind, the CMP had promised to increase spending on agriculture, public health and education. Sadly, though, much of this has not materialised in real terms.

Urgency should be shown in addressing this issue, largely because of the demographic composition of India today. We have always argued that we need to treat our human resources as an asset, not a liability. At present, 54 per cent of Indians are below the age of 25. It is on the shoulders of this youth that India can emerge as an intellectual and economic powerhouse. Investing in the youth today is akin to investing in India’s future.

The World Development Report (WDR) 2007 — titled ‘Development and the Next Generation’ — points out: “The situation of young people today presents the world with an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate growth and reduce poverty.” Today, 1.5 billion people around the world are estimated to be in the age group of 12-24 years; 1.3 billion of these, the most ever in history, are in developing countries.

While this demographic composition is true for most of the developing countries, India has an added advantage. The year of India’s peak youth population is yet to arrive and is estimated to be close to 2024. An index developed by WDR, called the demographic window of opportunity, has shown that for most developed countries, this demographic window has already closed. China is in the group for which this window will close in less than 10 years. Coincidentally, China’s peak youth population was in 1978, the year it embarked on its historic course of reforms.

India must use this opportunity, for, as the WDR states, “If countries fail to invest in human capital — which is most profitable for the young — they cannot hope to reap this demographic dividend.” In order to use this opportunity, we need to undertake much higher levels of public investment. The WDR speaks in terms of putting a “youth lens” on government policies. It suggests three strategic directions for reform. First, the broadening of opportunities for developing human capital by expanding access to, and improving the quality of, education and health services.

Second, developing the capabilities of the youth and providing them with institutional support mechanisms. And third, providing an effective system of “second chances” to allow the youth opportunities “to catch up from bad luck or bad choice”.

Translating this into action in India, as promised by the CMP, means increasing expenditure on education — which is, at present, below 3 per cent of the GDP — to 6 per cent and increasing expenditure on public health from the present, abysmally-low 0.9 per cent of the GDP to 3 per cent and above.

This also needs to be accompanied by substantial investment in agricultural infrastructure. This is required to tackle the deepening agrarian crisis and the consequent distress reflected in the continuing suicides of farmers. It is also needed in a situation where the foodgrain production in the country has at best stagnated, if not declined, leading to a significant fall in the levels of foodgrain consumption. Another important reason for the urgent need to increase investment in agriculture is the inevitable decline in availability of arable land due to growing industrialisation, which is bound to adversely affect foodgrain output.

Such industrialisation has to be matched with investments aimed at significantly increasing levels of productivity. China, with less arable land than India, has more than double our agricultural output. Such increases in investment appear inevitable considering that despite the packages announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, farmer suicides have not abated.

Naturally, the question arises from where and how resources can be mobilised to meet such high levels of public investment. The Left has consistently pointed out that with an unprecedented record of the fourth consecutive year of increases in budgetary revenue collections, which is growing at over 20 per cent per annum, the funds available with the government are on the rise. Second, the widening of the tax base, though begun through the introduction of the service and fringe benefit taxes, needs to be further extended.

Taxing the rich does not mean increasing the tax rates; it means reaching out to the various ‘rich’ who are today outside the ambit of taxation, which leads in many cases to nauseating levels of conspicuous consumption. It is simply not acceptable that crores of rupees of profit can be made on the stock market without paying a paisa of tax.

There is another dimension. While investing in the youth is investing in the future, not doing so is the surest recipe for the growth and spread of social tension and anarchy. The slide to degeneration can be steep and sharp, and may well consume the energies of an entire social order. This can only be prevented by investing in the youth and channelising their energies in a positive direction. Investing in the youth is hence the best insurance against anarchy and the disruption of the social fabric.

An estimated 300,000 children under the age of 18, representing 10 per cent of global combatants, are either fighting in wars or have recently been demobilised. These are figures gathered before the US military occupation of Iraq. If this age-group were to be expanded to include youth below the age of 24, the figures would be substantially larger. Add to this the hundreds of thousands of youths who, in the absence of any meaningful, productive avenues of employment, are part of global crime syndicates. This is not merely energy wasted but negative and destructive energy.

The outgoing UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has aptly said, “No one is born a good citizen. No nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline.”

As part of its mid-term review, and in the run-up to the forthcoming budget, for which exercises must have already begun, the UPA government must urgently work in the direction of stepping up investments in crucial areas. These concerns must find priority.

Sitaram Yechury is a Rajya Sabha MP and member of the CPI(M) Politburo.