Promises to keep in the upcoming UP elections

The election to the UP Assembly in 2012 is likely to be the most hotly-contested and closely-watched political event of next year.  As the election date approaches, there are attempts by various political parties to strike a rainbow coalition across socio-economic lines, one that will assure electoral success.

As is widely acknowledged, the role of primordial identities like caste and community will figure prominently in the political strategies of the contesting parties.  But there is also a discernible aspiration among the people of UP for a higher growth model and rapid economic development.

This change would require a paradigm shift in the electoral campaigns of political parties—one that downplays the role of caste and community and replaces it with a developmental agenda. It remains to see whether the main political forces at work are able to weave a vision for all-round economic and social development in securing the people’s mandate.

The challenges facing UP are enormous; the state suffers from a ‘hindu’ rate of economic growth and its people enjoy poor health outcomes and a low per capita income.  Being primarily an agrarian state, it has comparatively low levels of urbanization.  The boom in the services and manufacturing sector experienced in other parts of the country has largely bypassed the state. There is a critical shortage in power generation, coupled with a skewed transmission and distribution network. The power units are financially unviable, wholly dependent on government subsidies to make up for revenue gain and tariff imbalances. The state has no world-class infrastructure to boast about.  The roads are in dire need of up-gradation and the low road connectivity is a major constraint for both agriculture and industries.  There is also serious shortage of skilled manpower within the state.

The IT network, which is a prerequisite both in delivery of public services and economic development, is still very weak in the State.  All in all, the investment climate is far from attractive, and the low morale of the civil and police administration gives little hope for speedy course correction.
If there is to be a political turnaround, the political parties must develop a time-bound list of ‘doables’ or actionable milestones that reflect widely-felt aspirations of the citizens of the state. More than ever, the state needs to break free of its image of being “bimaru”, a byword for corruption and political misgovernance that has characterized everyday life, and set itself on the path to development and good governance.

The first and foremost programme that needs to be taken up in the party manifestoes is good governance. Although this has been promised in all previous elections, specific action on it has largely evaded the voter.   To begin, there should be a State Civil Service Commission for administering the postings and transfers of IAS/IPS/PCS and PPS officials so as to de-politicise such bureaucratic decisions.  There must be strong commitment to introduce police reforms within a year based on the directives of Hon’ble Supreme Court. In addition, a white paper giving a broad outline of work undertaken on the implementation of police reforms should be published in the public domain within the first 100 days of the new government.

Similarly, it is not enough to publicly declare that the scourge of corruption would be routed out.  A concrete plan that lays down systemic reforms for curbing corruption is necessary.  The existing Lokayukta Act of UP suffers from many weak provisions, rendering it an ineffective institutional arrangement at tackling endemic corruption.  It is therefore imperative that model Lokayukta Act circulated by Colloquium of Lokayuktas in 2010 is immediately adopted. In fact, very recently the State of Uttarakhand has passed a strong Lokayukta Act, whose model could be replicated in UP as well.

The buzzword of governance at the cutting-edge level is public convenience and accountability, one which includes an element of citizens’ grievance redressal.  In this regard, it is important that a law ensuring citizen-friendly public services accessible to one and all be introduced in the state.  The States of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Delhi have already enacted laws ensuring essential public services to the people in an assured and time-bound manner.  They have provided legal teeth to largely ineffectual citizens’ charter, thereby making them legally enforceable public entitlements.  Further, these laws fix the accountability of non-performing officials for delays and denials, enforcing penalties which can then be claimed by the aggrieved citizens as compensation.

The political parties should promise to enact a law which incorporates provisions for compulsory and annual disclosure of movable and immovable property and assets by bureaucrats and politicians as well as confiscation of illegally-acquired properties by them.

The state needs to leverage its comparative advantage in the agriculture sector.  The political parties in their election manifesto must promise to relax all restrictions on procurement, processing and marketing of agricultural produce by farmers.  This would require amending the ‘Agricultural Produce Market Committees’ Act which will reduce the burden of cess placed on transactions that take place outside the ‘mandi’ and for auction of a specified quantity of agricultural produce or sale. With the help of ‘mandi’ cess already available with the state, an efficient supply chain upgradation could be made benefitting farmers.

The promise of “water to all” should also be included in the party’s manifesto.  The state has enjoyed an efficient irrigation system, with the number of main and feeder canals successively expanding.  There should be a concrete and viable plan for replenishing the depleting underground water levels as well as other schemes for water preservation in drought-prone areas like Bundelkhand.

The state has an inadequate power supply, poor road connectivity and a sluggish transport network.  Any strategy proposed by political parties for the infrastructure up-gradation must focus on these critical areas along with strengthening existing power and transport networks.  Given that the state is poor in power generation, with an inefficient transmission and distribution system, it is important that the government within two years covers and connects all villages with a population of more than 500 persons with a regular power supply. In addition, the state can make use of the abundance of Central Government assistance in constructing new roads connecting the rural hinterland with peri-urban and the rapidly urbanizing town and cities across the state.

Despite the plethora of welfare schemes and large fund flows, the poor remain mostly unserviced and outside safety-net programmes.  A good beginning could be made by integrating all existing welfare schemes in single-window delivery system for the poor.  In fact, the Delhi Government with the help of non-governmental organisations has experimented with a scheme called “Mission Convergence”, wherein it aims to overcome both the supply and demand side challenges that affect welfare service delivery.  A similar convergence of welfare schemes aimed at the poor could also be implemented in the state.

To improve its poor track record in the implementation of Right to Education Act political parties should promise the adoption of the Act in full earnestness. Further, to make up for the state’s education deficit, a public-private partnership may be struck for the establishment of world-class school infrastructure so that schools remain easily accessible and within every child’s reach. Such a partnership would also address capacity-building issues relating to teachers’ training and course curriculum development.

There should also be a well-structured scholarship programme for SC/ST students upto class XII.  Special hostel facilities should be made available for girl students, who are forced to drop out of the educational system. Such a network of hostels could be identified in collaboration with colleges and located near block headquarters.  Like in Bihar, all girls going to junior high school should be given free cycles.  These programmes should be seen as removing the social disabilities that hamper the spread of education.

Equally important is the modernization of the health sector and expansion of the reach of state-wide health schemes.   A computerized health insurance scheme to cover all citizens with a token contribution by subscribers must be assured.  This scheme could be availed in both private and public hospitals with reimbursement of cost made possible through a Smart Card facility.  Such a programme has already been experimented successfully by the Labour Ministry, Government of India.  Further, to build up state healthcare facilities, district level training centres can be set-up for training of para-medics, nurses and lab assistants to equip them with the latest medical know-how.  A pilot programme to provide widely-prescribed medicines for common diseases could be introduced at primary schools with the placement of trained paramedics which would help reduce the morbidity rate of the state and generally improve health conditions.

To encourage the growth of modern industries, the parties should commit to a cluster programme for the development of industries, making full- use of economies of scale. To attract private capital, there must be concerted effort to end the license-permit raj system with its circuitous process of bureaucratic clearances and inspection.  Government regulation should be exercised through a self-reporting system that places value on performance obligations and provides monetary incentives.

Finally, there needs to be greater decentralization of power in the Panchayati Raj System with an emphasis on building their capacity in terms of funds, functions and functionaries.  Such devolution needs to be participatory with citizens to work as equal partners in grassroots development.

It is clear that UP faces daunting challenges of governance and development. The hope is that whichever political party is elected to power will adopt a pragmatic and action-oriented plan—one which ensures not just law and order but also all-round prosperity for all.