Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar
New Delhi, Nov. 8 The issues of rural India rarely find themselves vying for eyeballs in corporate drawing rooms. A few years ago, the mention of Panchayati Raj (PR) would evoke a yawn or a sneer from the country’s elite TV audience or at best, a routine capsule on it would be aired on Doordarshan. But today, even a hard core business channel such as Bloomberg UTV is beaming a talk show on the subject.
And who else would fit the bill to anchor such a series but the former Panchayati Raj Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar. Though currently out of office, his enthusiasm for the empowerment of local self-governments is still keeping him on his toes. Apart from anchoring the talk show, Aiyar has been travelling in districts in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan sensitising and mobilising people under the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sangathan. He is also a frequent speaker on the subject in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the UAE and Singapore. “I wish the Government too made use of me,” he is frank enough to lament as he launches into his pet subject at his erudite best.
Aiyar is thrilled that the concept of local self-governments is now reaching a desired audience through the TV show. “It has been the opening up of a new world to me by being allowed to come on the channel. And, I hope, I’ve opened a new world to corporate honchos who live, I’m afraid, in their India while most of their countrymen live in a really dreadful Bharat,” he says.
On the show, he garners the opinions of personalities including Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman Planning Commission, Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister in the Kerala Government, Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of UIDAI,P. Sainath, journalist and elected representatives from zilla parishads and panchayats, at the same time arguing that the inclusive growth being promoted by the Government can never take place without inclusive governance and the keen involvement of the rural population.
“So, what is standing in the way?,” he asks and answers the question in the same breath, “….our administrators, political class, media, business world privilege accelerated growth over inclusive growth and the belief that the way to inclusive growth is through accelerated growth as this combined with tax reforms substantially increases government revenues… The fact of the matter is that outcomes have been derisive in relation to outlays because the same government that believes in inclusive governance prepares centrally sponsored schemes which are implemented entirely by the bureaucracy or their collaborators the NGOs, but without the deep and active involvement of the beneficiaries themselves.”
The consequence, he points out, is that “we have over 100 mutually insulated silos delivering growth and welfare to the same set of beneficiaries. But, because of this, administrative costs go up hugely and convergence is not possible. That is the fundamental reason why Rajiv Gandhi, based on the single Planning Commission study of 1999, famously or infamously said that 85 paise in the rupee does not reach the poor.”
Aiyar goes on to explain that the current Planning Commission has come to a similar conclusion and puts the figure at 83 paise. “I think we can leave it to the experts to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but the fact of the matter is that 75 paise to 85 paise meant for welfare schemes is being absorbed by the administrative mechanism. I am not saying this is corruption, but just the system they have set up…” Instead, he advocates a systemic change in governance, where responsible administration replaces responsive governance.
Aiyar’s other concern that comes out loud and clear is that though anti-poverty central spending has increased from Rs 7,600 crore to Rs 1,25,000 crore between 1994 and now, India has retained more or less the same position on the Human Development Index. “The same people who are brushing under the carpet that our relative position on the HDI has not increased are the very same people who are boasting again in comparative terms that ours is the second highest rate of growth. So, obviously, the high GDP growth is not translating itself into commensurate high HDI growth, with the consequence India is prospering, but Indians are not,” he says.