A Greater Sense of Urgency for Reforms

A Greater Sense of Urgency for Reforms

The pandemic has brought a realisation that we need greater public health infrastructure so that we are ready for any calamity of this order in the future

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

The government has been pushing big reforms even before the pandemic. The crisis has brought a greater sense of urgency for such measures.

The objective will clearly remain the same, that is, Ease of Doing Business and Ease of Living. These are the two principal components of the government's agenda so that economic growth accelerates, investments improve and lives of people, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid, become better.

Because of the damage Covid-19 has done, we want to ensure that when the economy starts reviving, growth remains high on a sustainable basis. This is what the prime minister meant when he said that the crisis needs to be turned into an opportunity.

We want to now put in place enough changes quickly so that when 2021-22 arrives, investors find greater certainty, predictability and transparency, and have to deal with a lighter and much more rational regulatory burden than in the past.

Covid has also brought forth the importance of private sector investments to take the economy forward.

Focus on Health Sector

The pandemic has brought a realisation that we need greater public health infrastructure so that we are ready for any calamity of this order in the future.

We launched the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (Ayushman Bharat), which covers half the population, almost 500 million people, giving them access to hospitalisation and health cover up to Rs 5 lakh so that they don't slip back into poverty (when a medical emergency strikes them). This is a very big social security net. We also started mainstreaming traditional medicine. The role of Ayush has come out in a big way.

In the past few years, the health budget has been ramped up significantly. Besides, there are other changes in the health sector that the government has undertaken. The process of replacing the Medical Council of India by the National Medical Council has started. This is a big step towards improving medical education and research in the country.

Public health, public hygiene, immunity and nourishment of children and women should be our priority if we want to meet our Sustainable Development Goal targets. The government has been committed to these but the pandemic has reiterated the need for greater focus on these goals.

Social Security

What the pandemic has also done is help us realise the importance of a larger social security net. And while schemes such as the Ayushman Bharat provide a part of that, the government has put in place a labour code, which tries to increase the number of people who join the EPFO (Employee Provident Fund Organisation) and become part of the formal sector. The government wants a larger number of workers to join EPFO and ESIC, and is making this possible under the new labour code that has been just passed by Parliament.

People often talk about implementing Universal Basic Income (UBI) as part of a social security measure, but I am not a supporter of UBI. We don't have the resources, and I am not sure if that provides the right motivation for our young population to achieve their aspirations. I think a lot more will be achieved if we spend the same amount of money on better skilling and getting people into hybrid courses that combine on-the-job training (with apprenticeships) and classroom or online instructions.

For Future

The pandemic has also brought back focus on a couple of reforms that the government is already pursuing.

One very important step for the future - something the government is very serious about, the prime minister has talked about, and the finance minister mentioned in her Budget speech last year - is encouraging chemical-free farming. This is not organic farming but a method which Subash Palekar made popular where you can have farming with zero chemicals, which is based on traditional methods using local inputs but in a manner that triggers rejuvenation of soil, enhances microbial activity and releases micronutrients from the soil.

Such farming can ensure that productivity does not decline and water usage comes down to a quarter. In short, it is a step towards introducing agro-ecology, so that the country can emerge as a producer of high quality natural agricultural products which are being demanded increasingly throughout the world as fallout of the pandemic.

The second big one is to improve the water situation. We can see something happening there in the coming year. Availability of potable drinking water to every household will be a big step forward. There will also be reforms of anganwadis and take home rations - everything focused on improvement of nourishment of children and women.

There are several other proposals in the pipeline. They touch the lives of people directly, and therefore, the citizens will need to be engaged. The three ways to handle the (resistance to) reforms are communication, communication and communication.

We are a vibrant democracy and our people are very rational and reasonable. The nature of the changes and their possible impact and benefits will have to be explained to people and that is our responsibility - responsibility of government, fourth estate and all people, political parties concerned, etc. That is why the prime minister says that constant in-depth dialogue has to continue because the days of doing reforms by stealth are gone.

One positive of the pandemic has been a much deeper recognition of the role of private investments and players in carrying the economy forward. For this reason, the Productivity Linked Incentive Scheme has been launched in 13 sectors where the government is inviting investors to build global scale plants.

This recognition of the importance of the private sector and the recognition that you have to build trust between private and public sector is the biggest gain of this crisis. It has brought home the fact that we have to get over this crisis together and it is not just the government's responsibility.

(The author is Vice Chairman, Niti Aayog)