Electoral debates: where are the alternative visions?

Surprisingly, the debate on the key developmental issues is quite muted this time. There was a fresh thought recently articulated by the finance minister that whether GST council framework will work for fostering inter-state consensus at the federal level on agriculture, health, and rural development. This is an interesting argument because it means state subject may move practically to concurrent list through consensus of course.

The advantage of such an arrangement is that populist competitiveness may be substituted by longer-term realistic policymaking. For instance, many states do not realise how much damage they did to the cause of sustainable water use in agriculture by free power or horsepower based metering. Not only it led to wastage of water and decline of water table but also led to a decline in soil fertility, higher leaching of fertilizer productivity, higher incidence of pests and diseases and overall loss of soil productivity in the long term. Maybe such issues when discussed collaboratively will not remain an issue of political one-upmanship, as I argued last week.

Another advantage is that good practices of initiatives of one state may become national policy without getting into political biases. The downside is the fear that centralization tendencies already evident in national polity may become further strong. The Subsidiarity principle of governance says that decisions should be taken as close to the point of implementation as possible. The need of the hour is greater decentralization.

Further, the scope for greater evidence-based or otherwise, policy experimentation may go down. How do we balance these slightly paradoxical choices?

National Development Council including CMs of all states was one such forum where such issues could be resolved. The Planning Commission and now Niti Aayog could have facilitated inter-state dialogue in a more balanced manner involving experts on merit. If all those experts who worked in previous national committees are considered biased with one ideology, then there will be no fair participation of experts in any national consultation. Ideally, a committee of experts should frame issues in various sectors as used to happen during the evolution of earlier five year plans, and then these issues could be debated in the meeting of Planning commission, NDC or GST council kind of fora.

There was another mechanism to take a diverse opinion of experts/stakeholders in the budget-making process and that was consultation with different stakeholders before framing budget. This has been almost done away with in recent years.

Let me frame some of the ways in which policy planning process can be made less vulnerable to political ideological shifts in some of the core areas. We can create ad-hoc groups of experts having state representatives as well in farming policy choices before these are discussed at Niti Aayog/planning commission level. These may have detailed pros and cons of various choices. For instance calculation of virtual water in the export of agricultural commodities may show that when we make price and export policies for commodities, we also assume the value for water consumed in growing those corps which is exported to other countries.

Likewise, when industrial effluents are discharged into rivers or irrigation canals or put into groundwater, their long term implications on soil, animal and human health are often ignored. How the decline in water table affects the poorest people is not factored in the policies for water conservation and utilization.

These expert groups will also flag uncomfortable issues as to what happens to those farmers when loan waivers are done who never got loans at all? Building good credit climate for agriculture, industrial and service sector will require inter-state fora.

I hope this debate is carried forward.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place