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HindustanTimes Sat,23 Aug 2014

Columns

Time to think small
Chanakya, Hindustan Times
July 07, 2012
First Published: 23:38 IST(7/7/2012)
Last Updated: 11:07 IST(22/7/2012)

Pranab Mukherjee is chugging along quite comfortably to the magnificent confines of Rashtrapati Bhavan leaving behind him an economy that is rapidly becoming paler by the day. So in steps the good Manmohan Singh and his team of crack surgeons like deputy planning commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and former Reserve Bank governor C Rangarajan. As they begin the preliminary examinations with the view to writing out a prescription, economy watchers are tying themselves up in knots - will the economy get back its colour, will it be further vampirised, will it trundle along at the same pace…?

As breathless anchors debate the subject, it struck me that apart for the impact on prices, all these figures and percentages cannot mean much to people who find that they don't have even the basic tools of life to improve their lot. And let us not go into the villages where life is nasty, brutish and short. Let us look at our cities where the growth engine is supposed to be gathering speed to pull the rest of India along.

You may think it facile for me to raise this point, but the death of a little girl a while ago after she fell down an open borewell says it all. One, of course, is the complete disregard for any law. The other is the manner in which people have been left to fend for themselves, in this case for water, where the State has abdicated. For goodness sake, if something as basic as water cannot be provided by the State, albeit for a price, then the rot goes far deeper than imagined.

By 2030, at least 590 million people will be living in our cities. This poses a serious policy and managerial challenge. There are those who are still yammering on about how migration to cities would end once our villages become pastoral paradises. Let us face it, they will not. People will still leave in droves to take their chances in the cities. It stands to reason that if the government cannot make our cities work, and mind you, most of our taxpayers who cough up 85% of tax revenues live in them, it would be a bit of a stretch to think that they will convert all villages into Ralegaon Siddhi without the accoutrement of Anna Hazare.

No, we cannot see villages and towns as separate entities anymore. The towns have spread out towards the villages and the latter are quietly merging into urban areas. After all, not so long ago, Gurgaon was a village. Today the bullock cart has been replaced by the BMW. But try and live there if you don't have private power and water and then you will sing another tune about the millennium city.

Poverty and backwardness is not exclusive to our villages. Over 75% of those who live in cities earn less than Rs. 80 a day. That is not likely to get you very far on a good day. So while the PM and his men are fine-tuning the engine of the economy, what I think we need is better governance at the municipal and panchayat levels. Eventually when the economy is racing along like a Ferrari, I am sure the trickle down will galvanise middle and lower India. Until then, maybe local administration could attend to the small things.

I don't believe that it is all that difficult to rationalise our water policy and ensure that the consumer pays and in return gets water. We keep hearing about water treatment plants breaking down frequently. Well, this is where the municipality comes, as in the nursery rhyme 'then mend it dear Henry.' This is not rocket science, is it? As for power, all it would take in a place like Delhi would be the local administration to swoop down on power thieves and the problem, I feel, would be all but solved. But there is so much lost in transmission that the shortages are built into the system.

We don't need a massive Anna Hazare- and Baba Ramdev-led campaign against corruption in high places. Or harebrained schemes like bringing back all the black money stashed abroad to wipe out debt. These are Panglossian in the extreme. If local governance works and there is no reason why it should not, after all we have much greater access to our corporator or councillor than to our MP or MLA, then I don't think we have to rachet up worry lines about the GDP.

It is the light bulb in your house that does not work, the tap that is dripping day and night that will ultimately creep up into slowing down the economy. You may laugh at this simplistic analysis. I think we should really do what we can - demand our rights from our local governance bodies - before taking out dharnas against money in Swiss banks. I think we should stand the popular notion of 'think big' on its head. What we need to do is think small.


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