Narendra Modi's flagship schemes: From empowerment to populism?

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
When the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance came to power in May 2014, Indians, including even the staunchest critics of the establishment, had one question in mind: what would the first non-Congress majority government deliver to the country in five years?

If we look at the starting point, the maneuver, and the current state of the government’s policy direction and implementation, the question gets answered with a reasonable clarity.

The first Budget of the government in July 2014 focused on building smart cities across India and providing skills to the booming youth populace. Within six months of assuming power, Prime Minister Modi upped the ante with three big announcements: a financial inclusion scheme ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana’, a policy mechanism to promote investments in India under the ‘Make in India’ banner, and the keen intent to make India open-defecation free under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

The policy focus reflected financial empowerment of the deprived, bringing investments around cities, and re-building cities that enhance quality of life, and make cleanliness a commonplace thing in India.

As the tenure of the government nears its end, the narrative and implementation juggernaut has moved on to, as the former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian puts it, “public provisioning of private goods”, meaning, providing rural families with such as toilets, electricity, LPG, a house, and roads to all villages.

It is culminating in pumping growth into agriculture. After back-to-back droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the narrative picked up with the intent to double farmers’ income in the 2016 Budget, transformed into a contagion of farm loan waivers after Modi’s promise to the Uttar Pradesh electorate, and lies in a sea of speculation about direct income support as of today.

In rural development, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Rural) was morphed from its predecessor Indira Awas Yojana in November 2016.

The percentage of funds utilised against allocation improved from 1 per cent in 2015-16 under IAY to 80 per cent since 2017-18. The number of houses built and inspected in villages crossed 10 million by 2018-end, with about 3.2 million houses built in 2016-17 at its peak.

Similarly, in case of rural electrification, the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana announced in the first Budget, which intended to electrify all ‘villages’, was infused with nearly Rs 28,000 crore to date. But to electrify all ‘households’, the government came up with a scheme named Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (with Saubhagya as acronym and the default name) in October 2017.

According to government data, households without electricity came down from 31 million then, to about 6 million as of date.

The length of rural roads built in a year increased from 4,000 km in 2014-15 to 6,600 km in 2016-17. It has dropped to 5,220 km in 2017-18, the reason, rural development ministry officials say, is the target to connect all villages above a population of 500 is about to get completed.

However, the same vigour is not apparent when we look at the urban development schemes initiated or reformed by the government, except for the Metro rail projects in various cities.

For the smart cities project, funds worth ~16,600 crore have been allocated to it by the government. The actual spending, however, stands at Rs 3,560 crore, according the data tabled in Parliament.

While the construction of 90 million toilets in rural areas has been touted, against the allocation of Rs 8,750 crore, only Rs 4,200 crore have been spent in four years towards urban sanitation.

Back in 2014 and 2015, to support its slogan of Make in India, the government had tried to bring in an ordinance to amend the land acquisition act to make the availability of land for industrialisation and development projects easier. After a public backlash, the focus shifted to doubling farmers’ incomes in the 2016 Budget.

Not to forget, the government came up with health insurance scheme Ayushman Bharat in September 2018. The debate on farm sector revival is slowly moving from loan waivers to direct income support to farmers, as the general election nears. How the interim Budget takes the course further remains to be seen.


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