In Gujarat, seldom is the red carpet laid out. With the State in the spotlight and its Chief Minister Narendra Modi the cynosure of the nation, one would imagine that they are terribly occupied. However, the three days that the Inclusion team spent in Gujarat proved that contradiction, in some sense, is what makes Modi move. The entire Gujarat top administration, including the highly efficient Chief Secretary, ensured that every moment of our trip was completely worthwhile.
It was with certain mental signposts of what one had seen and read about Gujarat and Modi that we started the meetings. Our first port of call was a national conference on Panchayati Raj at the impressive Mahatma Mandir, a new-age convention centre.
Modi entered the hall like a star and took centre stage. The excitement in the hall was palpable. His packaging blinds you at first and then one discovers the content. An old lady was on stage to receive an award. As she spoke to him holding his hand, he listened with compassion – a conversation that lasted over five minutes – uninterrupted. She left only when she felt satisfied. Narendra Modi, clearly, has mass appeal.
On the stage with Modi were more than about a dozen secretaries to the Gujarat government; there was only one other politician. The first presentation by the Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Madhya Pradesh, was on Panchayati Raj. This may seem odd but in Gujarat, it’s a given. The credit for good governance in Gujarat goes to its administration, comprising some of the finest IAS and IPS officers. But the question is why can’t the same officers make a difference in other parts of the country? When we quizzed Modi on this, he gave credit to teamwork and empowerment. Perhaps, there is more than a grain of truth, and valuable lessons too, for other States. Modi took the stage and talked about Panchayati Raj. He went through the details, his vision revealed as he started with the 73rd Amendment and beyond. He also talked about great national leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Vinobha Bhave.
Then, we got to meet him, one on one. From his body language on television and elsewhere, one often wondered, is he arrogant? I was late for the meeting, but he ended up giving more time than what I had anticipated or was given to understand by the senior bureaucracy. I don’t know if this was a special consideration. I don’t know if any senior in the government or any other Chief Minister would do this. In fact, I found him humble, but a no-nonsense professional.
We had an intense 45-minute conversation on governance, covering many aspects. My personal assessment is that he knows what he is talking about and he is not guessing. He reminded me of Indira Gandhi. He is a strong personality like she was; assisted by a very able bureaucracy, like she was; and, with probably not-so strong second tier political leadership. Perhaps, it is the need of the hour.
His officers say that Modi gets down to the minute details in all aspects of administration. For instance, he scrutinises the many government advertisements almost on a regular basis. We are told that he personally checks the copy, the colour scheme, the font, the photographs and the layout. He makes his corrections in green ink and checks the final proofs before it is sent for printing.
But one has to take what Modi says with a pinch of salt when he vehemently denies he has any ambition of becoming PM. He says he is just a karmayogi. Besides that, his answers were excellent. There was no questionnaire given in advance. In fact, the questions were written on the spot. The only other person with whom I have had such candid and intense conversations was P Chidambaram. And like Chidambaram, he probably has no patience with people who do not know their subject and that may come out as arrogance, but is actually not. If India were to have a presidential form of government today, the alternative candidate I can think of in the Congress is Chidambaram. It will be a Chidambaram vs Modi fight. Opinions may be divergent but economics is the same. Both have a business-like approach to economics and governance. Excerpts from the interview with Sameer Kochhar follow:
What are your thoughts on the current micro-economic situation in the country? Do you think the economic scenario is like that in 1991, when we had to pledge gold to the Bank of England?
The situation is just as serious in my view. The widening gap between growing imports and falling exports has not been corrected. Export growth needs a greater impetus. A Brand India that stands for quality products and zero-defect manufacturing, would go a long way in ensuring sustained growth in the export sector. In Gujarat, we would like to bring out an export promotion policy at the State level itself, which will benefit the country as a whole.
China has supported the MSME sector in a big way. However, in India, a number of legal restrictions have hampered it. What are your views on this issue?
As you know, the MSME sector plays a very large role in the growth model adopted in Gujarat. That is one of the reasons that employment in the manufacturing sector has also grown considerably. The Government of India figures indicate that there is less than 1 per cent unemployment in Gujarat. Our policies, rules and regulations act as a catalyst to enable entrepreneurs and small-scale units to meet their five main requirements, namely, energy, skilled manpower, raw material sourcing, access to market and financial assistance. However, the credit provided by banks in Gujarat is quite low compared to the deposits in our State. Increased credit to developing States is understandable, but there should be no discrimination to States such as Gujarat. Sufficient bank credit should be made available.
As regards labour laws which are on the concurrent list, several progressive States have been demanding that labour should be a State subject. Ideally, I feel that if flexibility is given to States to make necessary reforms in the labour regulations with sufficient safe-guards for the rights of the workforce, there is no reason why we should remain behind China. Quality, productivity and welfare of labour need to be balanced for a vibrant manufacturing sector.
It appears people have lost confidence in the government. There is a general opinion that nobody is governing. As a result, the youth feel depressed, frustrated and fearful of the future. Why is there so much pessimism?
The single-largest problem before the country today is the trust deficit vis-a-vis the Central government. People have lost confidence in it and daily events are re-enforcing this loss of confidence. I say that there is a need to think seriously about the future of our young generation. It is necessary for governments to take responsibility to create a situation where our youth can lead a life of dignity, self-respect and confidence. Good governance is the single-most important aspect of this approach.
However, the country is unfortunately being dragged towards votebank politics. By this, I do not mean any particular group or community. When I use the term votebank politics, I mean that since barely 60 per cent of the electorate vote, parties can come to power with as less as 30 per cent of votes. The government at the Centre feels that if it makes schemes that are targeted at this 20-25 per cent of the population and can keep them satisfied, then it would continue to win elections and stay in power. As a result of this approach, the remaining 70 per cent of the population feels totally neglected. In fact, with such an approach good governance is impossible.
One of the biggest benefits of good governance is that it does not look at welfare of any particular section of the people; it would result in welfare of all. For example, if you improve water supply, all would benefit. If you improve education or health services, all the citizens in that area would benefit. That is why we have adopted the mantra sabka sath sabka vikas. After all, this is good governance. In fact, sarva jana hitai, sarva jana sukhay is the basic mantra. What is required in India today is surajya. After swarajya, immediately the focus should have been on surajya. In fact after Independence, we should have focused more on the duties of citizens. Then the fundamental rights of all would have been automatically assured. These are the fundamental aspects which are being sidetracked due to votebank politics.
As a result, we have lost the understanding of good governance. Funds are no doubt being used for development. Not merely by building a bus station, but ensuring that the bus service is punctual, buses are well maintained, travel is safe, and conductors are courteous with passengers – attention to these aspects, that is good governance. Similarly, just building a hospital is not enough. Health services should be provided in a manner that the common man feels satisfied. That is very important. Therefore, everything is not related to mere expenditure or spending.
My Gujarat experience tells me the same government set-up, the same laws, the same officers can still deliver good governance. What good governance needs is good leadership, and I do not merely mean political leadership. Quality leadership must be available at every level, including within the bureaucracy. The government cannot run merely on dreams. The government must be policy driven. If governance is policy driven, those who have to execute policies would be clear in their mind as to their functions and, thus, responsibility and accountability would follow. Decisions are taken, the nation moves forward.
People have been talking about the demographic dividend for the last few years. How should we channelise it? What is your experience in Gujarat?
First, I would like to say that since 1984 we have been hearing various slogans about the 21st century. But in the same period, China put in place a variety of measures to build a strong foundation for the 21st century. We, however, merely used the notion for its emotional appeal. Today, we are the youngest nation in the world; 65 per cent of our people are less than 35 years of age. We have the intellectual capability among our youth. In such a situation, we should repose more confidence in them who have proven their abilities in the global world.
To realise the full potential of the demographic dividend, I believe that we should emphasise three aspects – skill development, scale and speed. A fundamental transformation has to be made in the way in which we realise the potential of our youth. A large number of youngsters complete their graduation every year, yet the Government of India says that employability of the educated youth is barely 20 per cent to 22 per cent. The educated youth cannot survive only on the basis of his certificate, he also needs to have certain skills. Even engineers, after completion of their degree course, need six to eight months of skill training. With skill development, employment and employability both will increase. The Government of India has been talking about and trying to develop a good programme for skill development for quite some time now. Recently, they acknowledged the Gujarat model of skill development. The Kaushalya Vardhan Kendra was also awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Administration. In fact, the result of our skill-development programme is that today Gujarat has minimum unemployment in the country.
We need to focus a bit more on the services sector. India, with its traditions, 5,000 years of heritage and geographical diversity, has not been able to focus to the required extent on tourism and hospitality sectors. Both, in addition to IT and financial services, would provide huge employment opportunities to our youth. I do not believe that we would then lag behind any country in terms of employment potential for our youth.
What are your views on social spending, the food security bill, MGNREGA, etc?
India is still a developing country and it is our duty as a nation to provide all necessary assistance to the poor people in the country. Not only for the government, for everyone this should be a priority. I am very clear. However, the means that we use to provide support to the poor should be such that they empower the poor, and not such that their poverty is used to maintain political power.
Take MGNREGA for example. I had suggested to the Prime Minister some time back that if MGNREGA was linked to asset creation, the country would have been strengthened by the scheme. If the deepening of the village ponds under MGNREGA scheme is followed up by fisheries development through a cooperative of the poor families there, the scheme becomes more sustainable and meaningful. There would be permanent development in the area. Poor would feel a sense of ownership for the programme, would start thinking differently about such common assets. The government spending should be linked to productivity, asset creation and economic activity for the poor in a real sense, so that they are empowered and become self-reliant.
What would be the challenges if we work to take the success that you have achieved in e-governance at the village, to the national scale?
We must accept that e-governance has a major role to play in our efforts to establish good governance. Gujarat has empowered panchayat institutions though technology and not replaced them with technology. If I merely centralise all governance through technology, it weakens the participatory process. In our State, the basic philosophy was that technology should strengthen the institution’s capability to deliver services to the citizens. In fact, under e-Gram, the Gram Panchayat has been strengthened with the ability to manage e-governance services. We have one of the largest networks at the State level under GSWAN, and also the highest level of connectivity in the rural areas. Gujarat is the only State in which all the 13,600 or so Gram Panchayats have broadband connectivity.
Secondly, e-governance should be service-centric. Today, the farmer in Gujarat does not have to spend time and money to approach the patwari or the tehsil to get his land records. Technology enables him to obtain his records at a touch of a button. We provide 140 online services at Jan Seva Kendras in every tehsil, extending the concept of one-day governance. E-governance and use of technology is not about how modern the laptop is; but, rather how it is used for the benefit and welfare of the public.
We have also utilised mobile technology. For example, about four years ago, when we did not have such a large network, we had repeated floods in River Mahi. Then we had access to the mobile network. We sent messages in Gujarati, using English script, by SMS to the people in the vulnerable areas, providing them critical information of the water level in the river and requesting them to shift to higher places. There was not a single loss of life, nor was a single cattle lost.
We also successfully run a well-established online grievance redressal system. The United Nations has awarded the SWAGAT initiative. In my State, a person goes to e-Gram centre in his village to register his complaint and it is resolved, even if it has to reach the State level for redressal. All of this is replicable.
The bureaucracy can be the backbone of good governance. We find that the bureaucracy in Gujarat is very proactive, does good work, but same is not the situation outside Gujarat?
The team spirit within the government is the main factor in Gujarat. Here, discussion and suggestions are possible. When we have to draft a public policy, we put it online and call for suggestions. If there are any limitations to our own understanding of any specific subject matter, these inputs broaden our vision and, therefore, by and large, our policies are constructed close to perfection. Also, discussion ensures that our officers comprehend the underlying policy rationale. Hence, implementation becomes more meaningful. This converts into good performance of the bureaucracy.
I do not allow hard work to become a burden for any one. Work done well is a source of satisfaction. I run a karmayogi campaign in which we provide a 72-hour training module. This training is very simple. We tell our employees not to be overwhelmed by their duties. The government will go on. But, what I want is that when my government employee returns home in the evening, his family should see a smile on his face. I believe that the goal of our karmayogi campaign is to facilitate stress-free family life of employees; that readily translates into good performance of the government. This attitude has brought about an electrifying positive effect in the government team.
It is often asked that if Modi becomes the PM, what would happen to the Gujarat story?
First of all, I would like to say that this question is very loaded. My life has nothing to do with obtaining some post. This was never in my mind and I am sure it will not be my goal. If I have any dreams, it is to be of some service to the people.
I am confident that even if tomorrow I am not the Chief Minister in Gujarat, it will continue to perform as well, if not better, because our good governance is not individual-centric. Every idea has been institutionalised. Take the example of Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit. In 2003, I was deeply involved with the organisation of the summit for almost 2-3 months. In 2005, I may have taken part in the preparations for about a month, and now, in the last two summits, I do not have to get into the details. The philosophy, methodology and objectives of the Global Investor Summit keep evolving as needed. I believe creation of such institutions in an organic manner is the service of this State.
There are several areas where the country is not able to progress to the level achieved in Gujarat, particularly in urban development, infrastructure, public private partnership models, etc. How has this been done?
Let us take urban development. I could see that urban development was a highly excluded sector in our country. It did not have the kind of structure that was available in the rural areas through Panchayati Raj institutions. The State and Centre had a limited role. In 2005, we organised the Urban Development Year to develop our own vision and strategy for city governance. One of the main weaknesses in this sector was the lack of technical manpower. Most of the municipal bodies used to recruit clerical manpower and that too with a large degree of nepotism. We stopped all that. We finalised the staffing pattern in the local bodies with fair and transparent recruitment for technical man-power. This may not have been politically attractive, but as I said before, such measures can be taken by those who do not indulge in votebank politics or run the government only to get re-elected.
We removed encroachment, we identified tax defaulters, we computerised the tax system, and, we publicised the names of citizens who had not paid the taxes. As a result, the citizens started paying their taxes to escape the ignominy of being declared a tax defaulter publicly. This improved the revenue of municipal bodies and they started performing. We also brought in several reforms. When probably no State in the country was spending significantly on urban development, Gujarat launched the CM Urban Development package with a size of Rs 70 billion. We linked funding with reforms in computerisation, capacity building and accounting systems. We introduced the initiative of young engineering students interning with the municipalities, to overcome the technical manpower shortage. Several such innovations enabled us to perform well in the urban development sector.
Corruption is a major issue today. What have you done to ensure a corruption-free Gujarat?
Today there is general consensus that Gujarat is corruption-free. I am of the firm belief that our country can also be made corruption-free. The leader of the country, his thinking and his interests should be free of any taint. I believe that any compromise to hold on to power is also a form of corruption. That message should reach out to the last person.
Secondly, the government should be policy driven – there should be minimum scope for discretion. Corruption arises from a situation where there is no clear transparent parameter for allocation of benefits. If the State is driven by policies alone, and if the policy is known to each and every person, such situations would not arise. Technology also plays a large role in creating and maintaining transparency. Whether it is e-tendering, or computerisation of checkposts, technology can bring in transparency and remove corruption. Moreover, in corruption cases I do not allow any leniency. There should be no nepotism. I believe that circumstances can be changed in our country also.