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Plan splurge to win poll plaudits

New Delhi, Sept. 29: Electoral realpolitik will see the country’s Tenth Soviet-style Five-year Plan pump priming the economy through spending increases on several social indicators—education, health care, nutrition and rural roads—besides the more conventional economic indicators of power and irrigation.

Top economists like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have long been clamouring that India should jettison its Soviet-era planning process which merely maps out economic growth parameters and spends on state-run mills, factories and projects, and, instead of concentrating on public spending, is more concerned with lifting more people out of abject poverty. But with general elections just two years away and elections to 10 state Assemblies looming large before that, this is also what the Vajpayee government feels may be the best proof of performance—investments in social projects which show quick results and help improve voters’ quality of life.

“The Tenth Plan is no longer going to be about GDP growth targets alone. For the first time, we are setting social indicator targets that can be monitored...experts feel public expenditure should be increased in social sectors, power, rural roads and irrigation,” Planning Commission deputy chairman K. C. Pant explained.

Pant added that a thrust on these sectors would be made over the first two years of the Plan—2002-04. Sources said the new focus of the Tenth Plan, which is coming up for ratification by the Union Cabinet next week, has been dictated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself after several brain-storming sessions with economists and BJP executives.

BJP managers are concerned that over-emphasis on reforms would lose votes and that voters are getting disillusioned with the perceived non-performance of the Vajpayee government. Quick-fix results are needed which could help win votes. Allies like Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam and Punjab’s Akali Dal also want results which they can show off to their voters and have said as much in meetings with the coalition government’s leadership.

For a change, this means populist politics is in agreement with top-of-the-line economic thinking. The BJP-led coalition government wants to spend Rs 1,44,000 crore this year on public expenditure and jack this up to about Rs 1,70,000 crore next fiscal. The increased spending will also ensure a 30 per cent hike in Plan outlays for social sector spending and a 25 per cent increased spending on power and road-building.

In fact, Pant has already written a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to ensure the higher spend, which he said was essential to ensure results and a reversal of the current economic recession. Special targets would include women, farmers and slum dwellers, all key vote banks for any political party.

Within two years, the Plan envisages setting up enough schools to ensure primary education for all children, a move sure to attract popular support.

“This will ensure compliance with the promise in our constitution to give free compulsory elementary education,” the Plan panel chief said. In five years’ time, the Plan will spend enough to ensure five years of compulsory elementary education for all children, taking the literacy rate from a current 65 per cent to 75 per cent and evening out the gender gap in literacy rates. “We are asking states to freely use foodgrain in our stocks for mid-day meal programmes to improve school attendance,” Pant said.

The Plan also wants to introduce vocational education right after the elementary level. “Growth in our working age population is much higher than before. We are feeling the impact of the baby boom of the 1970s and early 1980s...to channel these extra hands we need new training and employment strategies,” Pant said.

These baby boomers are also the new generation of voters who could cause startling changes in voting patterns in many key constituencies and the government is naturally keen to keep them off the streets. In a bid to reverse the current trend of almost jobless growth, tax incentives for investments will also concentrate on labour intensive areas—irrigation, horticulture, fisheries, tourism, infotech and transport.

Healthcare spend is also going up considerably, with much of it being concentrated on child-care. Specific plans aim to bring down infant mortality from a current high of 70 per thousand births to 45 within five years and maternal mortality to just one per thousand in 10 years.

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