India, Oct. 9 -- Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh's statement that a nation's salvation lies in more toilets than temples has incurred the wrath of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal. But how many Hindutva activists have bothered to clean up the immense filth scattered around most temple precincts? And how many of us have pondered on the utter scandal that 626 million Indians (more than half of our population) still defecate in the open, making India the world's open defecation capital? Brahmanical notions of purity and pollution mean an acceptance of the horror of manual scavenging and a belief that Dalit castes are born to clean human excrement. The caste Hindu shuns everything that is expelled from the body, probably a reason why we have been in collective denial about the need for universal modern toilets.
But a reforming nation needs to not only challenge caste beliefs but also broadbase the idea of reforms. Before the government embarked on attracting FDI in retail and aviation, how much more tangible and real the reforms process would have been for the aam aadmi if a gigantic drive to provide clean toilets to all had been undertaken and even partially implemented. No wonder reforms suffer from an image crisis: they are seen as elitist and beneficial to the sharp suited corporate class. Reforms in India are desperately in need of a common touch; to quote a senior journalist, reforms should be re-christened as garibi hatao abhiyaan.
Politicians have run from the UPA's "big bang" reforms like hysterical chickens squawking in panic at the approach of a predator in the chicken coop. Why should they not squawk? Reformist chief ministers and "business friendly" governments have repeatedly bitten the electoral dust. Chandrababu Naidu and SM Krishna, poster boys of India's IT dream, were both defeated because their efforts were seen as benefitting only rich "high-tech" people in Hyderabad and Bangalore. "Shining India" of the BJP became identified with too many Five Star hotels and foreign brands and was trumped by the "aam aadmi" slogan of the Congress. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee lost his three-fourths majority almost overnight when his government was perceived as appeasing industrial elites.
Yet it is not as if a development agenda by definition makes you politically unpopular. The present crop of successful chief ministers is development and industry-oriented. Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi, Sheila Dikshit, Raman Singh and Naveen Patnaik are all working towards vikaas in their respective states with no dent yet in their popularity. The difference between the popular word "development" and the unpopular word "reforms" is not just tautological, but reflects the context in which both are uttered and whether or not they are accompanied by economic pragmatism. For reform announcements to be greeted with applause rather than brickbats, for reforms to be politically popular, for a political constituency to be created for reforms, it is essential that reforms are located bottom up, not top down. This means undertaking tangible acts of "development" before announcing big bang "reforms." This means providing mass toilets, low-cost housing, roads and electricity at the same time as, if not before, preparing the ground for Wal-Mart to enter India. Narendra Modi may charge for electricity but does provide uninterrupted power supply. Dikshit has agreed to FDI but has also overseen a vastly improved urban infrastructure in Delhi. Nitish Kumar is inviting industry but has made the streets of Patna safe. Reforms are publicly acceptable when they come as part of a package deal of visible daily improvement.
Why should "big bang" announcements be made only about FDI? Why no similar "big bang" announcements for a massive restructuring of government hospitals on a war footing, or a "big bang" announcement on a programme of urban hygiene or a "big bang" announcement of a drive for clean drinking water for all? The vagaries of international oil prices are meaningless to most Indians. We understand what we see, namely if urban facilities improve, if we get better hospitals and if public transport improves dramatically. FDI announcements, if they occur in a vacuum of no tangible on-the-ground development, can easily be exploited by anti-growth forces to say that "reforms" are simply sops for tycoons.
Already an important lesson has emerged from the FDI debate, and this is the almost complete federalisation or decentralisation of economic policy. It is increasingly the states, not the Centre, who are interpreting and becoming accountable for their own development agendas. FDI in retail contains an opt-out clause for states. Chief ministers like Dikshit have already raised the subsidised LPG cap that the Centre pegged at six to nine. Manohar Parikkar in Goa last year hived off sales tax to reduce the price of petrol. State governments under the new electricity reform announcements will have to take part of the responsibility for making electricity boards profitable if they want to avail of the Centre's financial package. Chief ministers have learnt the hard way that reforms have to be located in a larger process of grassroots development, rather than be a top- down process of bringing Wal-Mart into cities where there are no public toilets, where the roads are broken and where millions cannot get housing or adequate medical care.
FDI, economic reforms, price hikes may indeed be, as the prime minister said, urgent. But "selling" reforms can't be done simply through speeches. Reforms will only be politically acceptable if they become part of a constant and visible effort towards the improvement of day-to-day facilities for the average citizen. At the moment "reforms" are an unseen abstraction: they must be seen and sold as perceptible living realities. The Indian citizen has every right to shop at Wal-Mart, but he has an equal right to go to a clean loo.
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.