Many a slip between the cup & the lip

Topics Modinomics

The sidewalks that lead to Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara theatre are obstacle courses of paving slabs and steel pipes, perhaps thrown about by a giant. Manhole covers obtrude upwards at odd angles, seemingly to trip up pedestrians. The opening lines of NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar’s Magsaysay award acceptance speech — “My streets have craters and potholes which outnumber the moon”— ought to be an Indian urban rap song. In very few cities in Asia would such shoddy standards of public construction be acceptable.

Yet it is perhaps because of cityscapes akin to the aftermath of an earthquake that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s gargantuan ambitions for India seem so seductive. One week the commerce minister announces a target of $1 trillion in exports in a few years, the next the UP chief minister says his state, with poverty levels comparable to sub-Saharan Africa, will be a $1 trillion economy soon. The casual abandon with which this government throws about trillions in public conversations suggests it prefers Monopoly — even the notes introduced since the catastrophe of November 2016 look similar — to conventional economics.

In no country in the world is the gap between ambition and execution as wide as it is in India, circa 2019. Our TV cheerleaders depicted our moon mission as glorious in its failure, but just days afterward, the World University Rankings showed that not one Indian university made it into the top 300. The Economist recently pointed out that no large economy spends less on research and development than India — a pittance at less than one percent.

And, for all the faddish talk about discontinuing internal combustion engines by 2030, how does this count as progress if the electricity being used for vehicles to recharge is overwhelmingly from dirty coal-fired plants? As Michael Greenstone, a professor at the University of Chicago, pointed out at an event at the India Growth Centre this month, even Norway, where a third of vehicles are e-vehicles, is likely to reach 100 per cent only by 2050. Data released this month shows that e-vehicles are just 5.5 per cent of new car sales in California and most of these are Teslas.  

The Modi government’s goals could be defended as being an inspiring vision — or even management techniques once popularised by US management thinkers to stretch organisational capabilities — if they were grounded in some kind of reality. But projecting one trillion dollars in merchandise exports when we have been stuck at about $300 billion for the past five years merely undermines credibility — as does the Reserve Bank’s 6.9 per cent GDP growth target for this financial year. The shock therapy of demonetisation and a badly implemented GST have killed off many small and medium exporters, and the global economy is in a downturn. The only supply chain still growing is electronics; we are mostly conspicuous by our absence. The big gainer is Vietnam.

Despite our lofty targets, no one compares India with China any more — except to say that the government’s policies in Kashmir are not dissimilar to those employed by China in suppressing the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The government line that detentions, restrictions on movement and communication blackout are putting Kashmir on a road to peace has few takers overseas. Neither Al Jazeera nor the head of the UN body on human rights appear to believe this dispatch from the parallel universe that is Lutyens Delhi. “The best that can be said is that it is not a constitutional putsch on the scale of” the Emergency was The Economist’s verdict.

Of course, a proudly nationalist government can thumb its nose at international opinion, but the consumers of foreign media are people in boardrooms and at trading desks worldwide. Foreign portfolio investors pulled $4.2 billion from Indian equities in July and August. Resident Indians, meanwhile, have sent out as much as $5.8 billion in the first four months of this financial year, ostensibly for overseas travel, education and the maintenance of (and gifts to) relatives living abroad. This has raised questions of capital flight because it compares with $5.5 billion over five years of the previous government. The outlandish targets are not doing much for business confidence.

Filthy, broken pavements from Bengaluru to Mumbai notwithstanding, this government promised a Clean India by October 2, 2019, to honour Mahatma Gandhi. Admirably, Swachh Bharat has led to 100 million more toilets in homes, even if questions remain about whether all of these are connected to disposal systems and are being widely used. Revealingly, the ministry’s e-book says that it “has drawn significant eyeballs… (despite starting with) a tentative, small share of the column space wallet".
Better sanitation and better job prospects matter of course for almost everyone, but notably for the millions making their way through school. The teenaged girls on stage last Saturday at Ranga Shankara were from the Nizamuddin basti in New Delhi. Their high-spirited, confidently autobiographical narration in Bhagi hui Ladkiyan was engaging. Yet, one couldn’t help worrying about their prospects as the gap between India’s grandiose economic targets and its inability to deliver is relegated to no longer being news at all.

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