The Modi government is being formed on the back of a mandate for honest and effective governance. Fortunately, it inherits a raft of incomplete social and economic equity initiatives from the UPA II. These need to be continued, deepened and tweaked to deliver more bang for the buck.
But every government craves the opportunity to distinguish itself from their predecessors. The Vajpayee government is remembered for the inter-city state highways it built, state enterprise privatization, albeit stymied half way through and the blot of Godhra.
Clearly, everyone wants a full stop to future Godhras. But the mere absence of organized violence is rarely memorable even though it is immensely difficult to achieve in a tinderbox political environment. What then are the “headline” opportunities that Modi.gov could grab?
Infrastructure, coal and defence present themselves instantly. The former two, to build an enabling India. The last, to deter the many “spoilers” of an Indian development story.
Within infrastructure, the real opportunity is in the railways. China now exports railway projects and technology and we are, reportedly, keen to learn from them. But the truth is that we have not served our cause well over the last two decades. The last memorable Railway Minister was Madhavrao Sindhia; not just for his dashing, good looks but for ushering in the era of “fast Shatabdi trains” in 1988.
What has held railways back since then is the “fiefdom” the Ministry became for coalition partners interested only in distributing goodies. Should not the railways them be privatized to nip its politicisation in the bud? Certainly not. Out of all the infrastructure sectors, railway privatization is the trickiest. Secondly, as we have learnt from the power sector, it makes little sense to privatize a sector, in which tariff setting is highly politicized, before it is stabilised.
The Rakesh Mohan committee on railways (2001) laid down a blue print for the sustained financial viability of a railway system performing on par with international standards of efficiency. More than a decade since, the situation has only degraded further: antiquated track and rolling stock; poor customer orientation; declining service and safety standards; distorted tariffs which are either not remunerative or are not competitive with air and road options.
The target should be to restore, the low proportion of freight and passenger traffic presently carried by railways, to more economically and environmentally efficient levels with a push towards rapid electrification of rail tracks.
Convert the Railway Ministry into a set of publicly owned companies with core expertise in production of rolling stock; freight or passenger traffic with self-owned rolling stock and track and facility maintenance. These companies should be Board managed and have only an arms-length relationship with their administrative Ministry, which should be the Ministry of Transport. Corporatisation will distance railways from being the “freebie-bag” it has become. This has happened, in the case of National Thermal Power Corporation and POWERGRID, both power sector publicly owned companies, where sound technical and financial decisions are taken by professionals.
Coal, whilst actually being one step ahead of railways, since Coal India is already corporatized, seems even more degraded. The next step should be to privatize it and closely review the vast unused or sparsely developed mining areas which have been allotted to these companies. This could be the Maggie Thatcher moment for Modi.
Abolish the largely discredited Ministry of Coal, as an independent entity; merge it along with oil and gas into a Ministry of Extractive Energy Sources. Appoint a savvy, industry friendly, politician; a Sharad Pawar clone, to restore positive energy into the fractured government-energy industry relationship and watch this sector take off.
Defence is the third big area, which India has pussy footed around for too long. Revamping the structure of our defence forces to be lean and mean with less tail and more teeth; modernization of weaponry, aircraft and warships; minimum levels of usable ammunition stocks and efficient procurement processes; integration of operations across the three services and para-military units; compensating defence personnel handsomely, for putting their life on the line, and re-integrating then productively in civilian life, post retirement, should be near term goals. Opening up defence production to the private sector, including foreign investors can kick start a dormant, defence industry led, domestic supply chain, mini, revolution.
The ideal Minister to manage this mini revolution would be the personable and upright, economist, writer and investigative journalist; Arun Shourie, who displayed nerves of steel as Minister Disinvestment in the NDA and navigated both, the political perils of rapid economic decision making and the roving eye of the CAG, with equal dexterity and success.
The Modi.gov reform and restore agenda is likely to be fairly full. The challenge is to isolate the few lead stories which could be the bell weather for its commitment and credibility to work in national interest; its ability to kick start the economy and generate productive jobs for the educated unemployed.
Railways, defence and coal are not low hanging fruit. All three have deeply embedded elite interests; the risk of failure is high and the likely adverse fall-out significant. Reforming them is not for the faint hearted. But that is precisely why they are good choices to announce ones arrival. The one that succeeds at reforming the three would have bent and strung Shiva’s bow.