Their actions on the nuclear deal and oil prices undermine the future of the nation
WHEN I turned on the TV to listen to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the nation on Wednesday evening, there was a brief flicker of expectation —perhaps he would actually use the occasion to say that the government had decided to go ahead with the Indo- US nuclear deal, damn the consequences. After all prime ministers don’t address the nation on trivial matters like raising oil prices. That was an administrative decision, which if commonsense had prevailed, should actually have been a commercial one. I didn’t expect that the PM would have to do something as dramatic as addressing the nation merely to justify a price hike of a commodity over which the government has been procrastinating for the past ten months. Alas, that was what it was all about. He did tell us how the international situation had warranted the price hike and did note that the present policy was not a“permanent solution” to the problem. But after a token reference to the need for conservation, and an exhortation to develop alternate energy sources, he was silent.
Mr. Singh’s address was par for the course for his prime ministership —uninspiring, dull and close to the political script of the pusillanimous Congress party that requires total appeasement of the Left allies of the UPA. This column is not about the nuclear deal. Though, for the record, the window is getting smaller and smaller and will probably close in September. What this is about is the larger failure of the political system to measure up to the needs of the country and its people.
Perhaps the best example is the oil price hike itself. Every party under the sun has gone out of its way to criticise it, even the BJP, whose record on dealing with the subject when in government as the leader of the NDA is not particularly edifying. None of them came out with arealistic and intellectually honest alternative to raising the prices of petroleum products. This is not surprising. After all, they are all fiddling while India’s energy prospects go from being bad to worse.
The country’s energy needs are not something that we have infinite time to resolve. The needs are here and now and not being met. Yes, we have our nuclear plan based on thorium, but it kicks in thirty years or so from now and that too if technical challenges don’t intervene. Reports that Indian nuclear power plants are running out of fuel have not been concocted by the Manmohan Singh government to build a political climate to favour the deal. The first official reference to the problem was available in the mid- term appraisal of the 10th Five Year Plan which was prepared in the early 2000s, well before the UPA came to power.
There is an argument that nuclear power alone will not achieve much. True, it has to be seen as part of a package of measures. France, after all, has managed in the last thirty years after the first oil shock to ensure that 79 per cent of its electricity is produced by nuclear energy, Japan manages 30. Think where they would have been today without nuclear power. The current nuclear renaissance is moving in a similar direction. Fourth generation reactors and newer technologies based on thorium are on the cards. But these will only be available if India is part of the world nuclear order, as defined by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA.
India’s window of opportunity is finite and can be defined with considerable clarity. It lies between now and 2030, because of something called the demographic dividend. As Prof Kaushik Basu has explained, the dependency ratio of our population, the number of people of working age as against those who are dependent, is set to decline in the next three decades and then start climbing again. In the year 2004 India had a population of 1,080 million, of whom 670 million people were in the age group of 15 to 64 years, which is considered as the “working age population.” The rest of the population —the very young and the old, some 400 million —were seen as the dependent population. So the dependency ratio, or the proportion of working age population to the dependent population worked out to 0.6.
Given our current trends this ratio will decline even further in the coming decades. In 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan; and, by 2030, India's dependency ratio should be just over 0.4. The advantage of a young working age population is obvious — they earn, consume and save. Higher savings rates make for greater investments into the economy. But this is only the theory. We need the practice. It is no good having a young working age population if it is not well educated, or if it does not have jobs.
So, the advantages of the demographic dividend are dependent on the kind of physical infrastructure we can provide for them —better universities, hospitals, roads, railways, factories, and so on. India needs a massive effort to shift avast number of people —we are talking of hundreds of millions —from the agriculture to the manufacturing and services sector. At the heart of this effort lies not only the availability of energy, but our ability to use it efficiently. The train to that future is leaving right now. We will not get another chance to board it again in this century.
There is nothing in the policies and politics of today which tells us that our politicians understand this truth. What does the CPI( M)’ s Prakash Karat have against the nuclear deal? Something to do with an abstract notion called “US imperialism”, perhaps. The Left is not even addressing the issue on hand —how to get nuclear fuel to power our domestic programme and acquire technology and financing to establish nuclear power plants in quick order to boost energy availability in the country. The specious critique of the Hyde Act, the faux concern for fuel security, are all aimed at scuttling the deal because of an unscrupulous political calculation.
L. K. Advani’s response is even more difficult to comprehend. On one hand he says that the BJP does not “basically” oppose the nuclear agreement. His suggestion that the US insert a provision in the 123 Agreement saying that the Hyde Act will not affect India is an insult to intelligence. Does he really expect that the US executive will agree to a changed wording that will negate the validity of a legislation of the US Congress?
Perhaps we are being too harsh on Advani. The person who is steering the agreement is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and he has behaved in a peculiar way with Mr Advani. Instead of engaging the Leader of the Opposition to get his support, he has avoided dealing with him, and gratuitously insulted him by appealing to Atal Bihari Vajpayee to make the BJP see reason on the issue.
When history looks back at our present distempers, it cannot but point out the culpability of small men found wanting when confronted with the big problems of the country. In north Indian historical consciousness, two characters stand out for their chicanery —Jaichand and Mir Jafar. Since the nation state did not exist during their time, they cannot really be condemned as traitors, as they have been in popular imagination. They were merely run of the mill men involved in petty politics, unable or unwilling to see the larger picture. I wonder how the leaders of today whose politics are undermining the nation will be portrayed by future generations.
The article was published in Mail Today June 6, 2008