|The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) appeared to shrug off political setbacks and economic adversity as the coalition government declared on Monday that economic growth will bounce back and that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be able to push through reforms to promote the UPA’s stated goal of inclusiveness.
“My government is confident that it will soon steer the country back to a high growth trajectory of 8-9%,” President Pratibha Patil told Parliament on Monday at the opening of the budget session as she outlined the government’s plans. “The long-term fundamentals of the Indian economy remain robust.”
The optimism comes in the face of Congress’ defeats in recent state elections that could make it more difficult for the UPA to overcome resistance to policy changes by the opposition as well as some allies. Meanwhile, victories in the state polls by the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab have given fresh momentum to regional parties, which are looking into the possibilities of forming an alternative front to the Congress and main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Previous such groupings have met with varying degrees of success.
Patil’s speech came ahead of the budget, which finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will present on Friday. He’s expected to set a growth target for the next fiscal year to March 2013 that’s higher than the growth estimate of 6.9% for the current fiscal year.
While highlighting that education is a focus area of the Centre, Patil said the government will set up a higher education credit guarantee authority for providing limited guarantees through risk-pooling for educational loans. She said that 1,500 new industrial training institutes and 5,000 skill development centres will be set up through public-private partnerships at an estimated cost of Rs. 13,000 crore.
Consistent with its commitment to universality, the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-17) will see the National Rural Health Mission transformed into a pan-India health mission, making no distinction between the rural poor and the urban rich.
“Regardless of what name it takes, the health plan we envisaged for India during the next Plan period promotes equal access,” said Leila Caleb Varkey, a member of the high-level expert group on universal health coverage, while pointing out that the national health mission was the subject of an ongoing discussion within the Planning Commission. “It is a health plan that will encompass every Indian regardless of social or economic background.”
The government has decided to provide Rs. 17,500 crore to the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor over a period of five years for the implementation of trunk infrastructure projects, and Rs. 1,000 crore for project development activities, Patil said.
Other plans listed by the President included bringing nearly half of India’s farmers under a comprehensive weather advisory service, the launch of a satellite for an indigenously developed regional navigational system and a separate department to focus on issues concerning disabled persons.
The opposition was not impressed by the government’s plans. Describing the presidential address as “lacklustre”, the BJP said it had neither set a new direction nor made any mention about the challenges to federalism.
“It’s just a list of what has been done, which isn’t enough. It doesn’t say anything about the challenge to the federalism and the government’s attitude towards the states,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar told reporters outside Parliament.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a think tank, pointed out that the government needed to take administrative measures to instil confidence, but the internal issues in the Congress and the government wouldn’t make it possible.
“What is needed for higher growth now is some administrative measures, such as tax reforms, etc. The government is capable of doing it,” he said. “But many pledges in the President’s address may be impossible to achieve given that the government may not have enough support from allies.”
“The good news is that they (these measures) are within the hands of the government and the bad news is that they are within the hands of this government,” he added.
As part of its agenda for the budget session, the government has listed 30 Bills for introduction and 39 for consideration and passing, apart from the financial business. Among the Bills that are to be considered and passed are the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA) Bill, the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, the Whistleblower Protection Bill, the banking laws Bill and pending legislation on the educational sector, including the Educational Tribunals Bill, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical Educational Institutions Bill and the Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill.
The UPA, which has a wafer-thin majority in the Lok Sabha and is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha, faced legislative hurdles in the winter session with the opposition and allies such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) opposing many policy initiatives. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC had blocked the government from increasing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail as well as the PFRDA Bill.
The ally, which has 19 members in the Lok Sabha, has also spearheaded opposition against the government’s version of the Lokpal Bill and the National Counter Terrorism Centre, saying that they would disrupt the federal structure.
Patil appealed to lawmakers to work “in a spirit of constructive cooperation”, even as several tried to shout her down with demands on farmers’ rights. She was disrupted during the hour-long address by protests on issues such as Telangana, alleged atrocities on Sri Lankan Tamils, sub-quotas for minorities and fertilizer shortages.
Patil also said the government plans to provide information on the availability of fertilizers through the Internet, on phone and via SMS.
“While mobile penetration at the village level is good, its use, when it comes to information discovery, has been limited,” said Sudhir Panwar, an expert on farm issues and a professor at the University of Lucknow. “In the past, initiatives like forward trading in commodities have seen little headway.”
Such a mechanism to disseminate information already exists for traders, said Satish Chander, secretary general of the Fertiliser Association of India. “So, such a move will add limited value to how a trader gets information.”
The Prime Minister expressed confidence that the budget session, scheduled to conclude on 22 May with almost a month-long recess in between, will run smoothly.
“I appeal to all political parties to work with consensus. The UPA is ready to discus all issues on the floor of the House,” Singh told reporters outside Parliament.