Without NAC, UPA’s tenure would have been better
Look back on the UPA’s two tenures, and apart from the policy paralysis and the bad tax laws, the biggest failure lies in the remarkably bad pieces of legislation. To be fair, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC) did come up with the path-breaking Right to Information—the NAC held its last meeting last week—but by and large its contribution has been a negative one. Whether it was the Right to Education, MGNREGA, the Food Security Act or the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act that the NAC pushed, all forced the state to take on a role that it was both ill-equipped for, and could not afford—in the case of the Right to Education Act, it even forced private sector players to take on part of the government’s responsibility. Despite the obvious waste and inability of the current system to deliver, its remit is to be expanded dramatically under the Food Security Act—properly budgeted, the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices had estimated it will cost the country 1.5-2% of GDP for each of the next three years, a bill India simply cannot afford on top of the already gargantuan subsidy spending.
Apart from hiking the payments to land losers at least four times, there are onerous rehabilitation and resettlement obligations in the Land Acquisition Act which have pretty much brought land acquisition for big projects to a standstill. In the case of MGNREGA, apart from spending around R40,000 crore a year, there is little evidence of this making anything more than a slight change in the number of jobs created.
Nor was the NAC’s writ limited to just coming up with bad legislation. Such was the status accorded to the civil society activists, they often overshadowed the government itself. At a time when the government should have been patting itself on the back for lifting more people out of poverty than at any time in India’s history, NAC-members changed the debate by arguing the numbers were distorted by the poverty-line being way too low—in such an atmosphere, there was no place for anyone who argued the poor benefited more from economic growth. Such was the sway of the NAC and its ideology, successive environment ministers sought to endear themselves with it—industrial development became a bad word, never mind that the stagnation that resulted hurt the poor the most. Hardly surprising then, that when Anna Hazare and his band of activists sought to dictate the government’s agenda, the UPA was in no position to protest. It had long ago outsourced law-making to well-meaning NGOs, and so had no option but sending its top ministers to negotiate terms of governance with them. One of the things the current elections will settle is whether people are willing to once again trust old-fashioned political parties with the business of governance.