17 September 2004, Press Release

17 Sept. 2004, New Delhi: The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the United Progressive Alliance government has covered all relevant issues for India’s development with employment generation and poverty reduction. However, unless attention is paid on issues of economic governance at the grassroots, its outcome may be far from what is promised. This was expressed by the representatives of civil society organisations from different parts of the country while participating in a two-day national seminar titled “The Common Minimum Programme and Its Prospects for Economic Reforms”. The event was jointly organised by Firedrich Ebert Stiftung (a German political foundation) and CUTS International (a think-tank working on economic issues). It ended yesterday at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

Kicking-off the event, Pradeep S. Mehta, Secretary General of CUTS International said that economic reforms are not new in independent India. He explained the point by taking the example of reforms in the telecommunications sector, which started in mid-1980s. In today’s context, the major concern is whether the nation is witnessing “jobless growth or not”. “We need to understand the complexities of the system and see how to grow and balances the concerns of different communities,” he said. The CMP is designed to address these complexities and concerns and it is a challenge for all citizens of the country to see to it that it is implemented in its letter and spirit.

According to Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Director of School of Convergence and economic commentator, the central question is whether there is any consensus on economic reforms. But before finding an answer to this question, it is necessary to debate on why and how to emerge consensus. “The apparent consensus on economic reforms is a fallacy, as otherwise why there is no consensus on privatisation,” he argued.

Presenting the current employment scenario of the country, N. P. Samy, Coordinator of the National Council of Labour (an apex trade union of unorganised sector workers) said that 93 percent of the current employment is in the unorganised sector, but only about 65 percent of our economy is considered as ‘unorganised’ according to various other (than employment) economic indicators. The government should address this imbalance through appropriate policy measures. He also argued that despite many claims otherwise, employment in the unorganised sector is declining over the last decade or so and this is mainly due to decline in agricultural production. Another major concern is quality of employment.

Pronab Sen, Advisor to the Planning Commission of India called for recreation of the planning system. The system is following a tiered approach – national, state, district and village-level planning. However, it is largely dysfunctional at the state, district and village-level, barring a few states. In this context, he argued that “the civil society organisations have a major role in making this system functional at the grassroots and only then the delivery mechanism (of public goods and services) will be improved.”

Amirullah Khan of the India Development Foundation argued that, contrary to some opinions, the proposed national employment guarantee act (providing legal guarantee of at least 100 days of employment every year at minimum wages for at least one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middle class household) would not result in a heavy financial burden on the state. The issue is that of implementation and creation of tangible assets for better delivery of public goods and services to the poor.

On day two, there were presentations and discussions on economic policy positions of different groups. According to Dinesh Trivedi, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha – Upper House), the nation is confused, as the people as well as policy-makers are not sure of the development model to be followed. However, the basic issue confronting the common people is access to basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, water, energy, communications. He urged the civil society organisations to work on fiscal reforms, as that will be major factor to determine the nation’s future course of development.

Amarjit Kaur of the All India Trade Union Congress said that trade unions are not opposed to reforms. “We are opposed to some contents of reforms, which suit the needs of vested interests and goes against the interests of the poor.” “What does economic reforms mean? Is it reduction of subsidies to the poor and subsidisation of the rich?” she argued. “The CMP will be considered successful if it can generate enough employment essential for the livelihood security of the poor.”

According to Tapan Sen of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, in 1990s there was significant decline in public investment and this has resulted in the decline of purchasing power of poor consumers. At the same time, there are enough resources in the country and these are to be tapped through innovative means. He argued that the CMP should be implemented in a manner that the real economy grows, as only then the consumer base of the country will be expanded. “The Indian electorate has started responding to economic issues and this will increase the political accountability of the system,” he added.

All the participants took active part in this interactive event, including group discussions. They pointed out that the CMP does not talk about land reforms (including tenancy reforms) and environmental protection. These two issues are to be included, as they are fundamental to the availability of, access to, and ability to pay for basic needs.

Summarising the general debate during the closing session, Chetan Sharma, Deputy Editor of TV Today Group said that there are two major issues:

employment generation in a sustained manner and the quality of employment for better livelihood security

accountability of the system, so that the poor can have better access to basic needs (public goods and services)

In this context, participants were unanimous in their recommendation that the debate on economic reforms and its implications on the livelihoods should be held regularly and at different levels: national to grassroots. Such debates will deliberate on required public actions for better economic governance in the country. There should be an arrangement for holding objective and well-informed debates among civil society representatives (from various movements such as development, environment, consumer, human rights, women, youth, student) and other stakeholders (policy-makers, politicians, industry, etc). They also called for periodic social audit of the implementation of the CMP and its implications for the people of India.