(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 08, 2012
PM’s Concerns: Patently
Contradictory & Hollow
SOON after his address to the nation on the eve of the New Year, the prime minister addressed the 99th annual session of the Indian Science Congress at Bhubaneswar on January 3. Both these together outline an agenda whose running thread is most disconcerting. This is the exclusive reliance that the prime minister and therefore this UPA-2 government seem to be placing on private initiative as the bedrock for solving the problems concerning the Indian nation and our people.
Invoking the legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (whose 125th birth anniversary falls this year) and Satyendranath Bose (the search for a sub-atomic elementary particle bearing his name -- Boson -- that may revolutionise humanity’s understanding of our universe continues), the prime minister ended his address with the famous quotation of Isaac Asimov: “There is a single light of science and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.”
In this vein, answering the question of what should be the role of science in a country like India, the prime minister defined this as to be supportive of “the national objective of faster, sustainable and inclusive development.” At the same time, he was candid enough to admit that India’s spending on scientific research and development (R&D) is “too low and stagnant.” Currently, we spend less than 0.9 per cent of our GDP on R&D. The prime minister bemoaned that China has left us far behind on this score and urged that we should spend at least 2 per cent of our GDP by the end of the 12th Plan period. The People’s Republic of China currently spends around 2 per cent of its GDP on R&D. It must, however, be noted that China’s GDP is at least 2.5 times larger than India’s. China therefore is spending at least five times more on R&D than India is today.
Certainly, there can be no dispute over the prime minister’s laudable objectives. However, the problem lies in the method the prime minister emphasised upon to increase these expenditures. “This can only be achieved if industry, which contributes about one-third of the total R&D expenditure today, increases it contribution significantly.” He then proceeded to rely significantly on this government’s famous mantra -- public-private partnership -- in achieving this objective. It is universally recognised that private interest in developing R&D is directly proportional to advancing its profit motive. This comes in direct contradiction with the prime minister’s declared objective of the role of science in achieving inclusive development. On the contrary, promoting policies to further profit maximisation is the surest recipe to ensure moving farther away from the objective of achieving inclusive growth. Claiming that since it is easier to attract funds into applied research, his government would formulate a set of principles to push such private funding into research and development.
To bolster this line of thinking, the PM bemoaned that “at present publicly funded R&D is skewed in favour of fundamental rather than applied research.” This is both strange and unscientific on two counts. First, the historical contribution of human civilisation in India has been in advancing fundamental science including the revolutionary invention of the zero. Secondly, it is fundamental research, whose discoveries may not immediately appear to be capable of translating into innovations in the production process but which nevertheless played the most important role in modernising human civilisation. Edison’s electric bulb, Marconi’s discovery of radio waves, or Graham Bell’s wired communication led to what is today’s modern telephone, radio and electricity in the reverse order. Without these, the modern world would never have been what it is today. The launch of Sputnik by the erstwhile Soviet Union paved the way for the development of satellites which are inseparable from our modern life today because of television images, cell phones, emails etc.
Instead of strengthening R&D in fundamental research, the prime minister emphasises PPP to bolster private profits. It would be virtually impossible to generate Ramanujans’ and Boses’ in modern India with this line of thinking.
A similar line of thinking was visible in the prime minister’s address to the nation on the New Year eve. He outlined a five point agenda: national security; economic security; energy security; ecological security; and livelihood security (education, food, health and employment for the people).
There can be no dispute or difference of opinion on the need to strengthen national security. However, the objective of achieving livelihood security will remain elusive given the emphasis, once again on bolstering private profits in the prime minister’s prescriptions for achieving the other three objectives.
Economic security is directly equated with reducing the country’s growing fiscal deficit. The prime minister says that this requires a reduction in subsidies. Currently, parliament was informed that the subsidy bill runs over rupees one lakh crore annually. However, the government by its own admission has collected over Rs 1,30,000 crores as revenue from taxes in the petroleum sector alone. Clearly, therefore, it is the people who are, by paying higher prices for petroleum products, subsidising the government.
According to budget papers during the last three years, a staggering Rs 14,28,028 crore had been the legitimate tax forgone by the government. Of this, Rs 3,63,875 crore were concessions to the corporates and the rich. The estimated fiscal deficit of Rs 4,65,000 crore this year pales into insignificance against such concessions. Such subsidies to the rich are called incentives for growth. Subsidies for the poor, too meagre to permit over eighty crores of our people to barely survive, however, are burdens for economic security.
Can the prime minister’s livelihood security for the people be achieved in this manner? It can be if such legitimate taxes are collected for public investments to build our much needed infrastructure. This would generate large-scale employment and allow survival. This would also expand our domestic aggregate demand giving the much needed impetus for our manufacturing sector, hence, overall growth, which is today declining or at best stagnating.
On achieving energy security, the prime minister spoke in terms of aligning India’s energy prices with global rates. Such an alignment with regard to petroleum products, irrespective of the actual cost of production in India, leads to continuous hikes in the prices for the aam aadmi in the name of massive under recoveries (not actual losses but notional as they are calculated on the basis of an ‘import price parity’) by the oil companies. The latest audited accounts show that the Indian Oil Corporation has a net profit of Rs 10,998 crore and a reserve revenue surplus of Rs 49,470 crore. Now, aligning electricity charges with global rates would only mean increasing further burdens on the people while bolstering corporate profits.
Similarly, the concerns for ecological security cannot contradict the needs of our people’s energy security. At the recent Durban Climate Change Summit, India pledged itself to unilateral reductions of our carbon emissions without wresting similar reciprocation from the developed countries. The per capita emissions in the USA today is nearly 20 times higher than in India. The prime minister himself is on record stating that India cannot seriously reduce poverty levels without significant increases in the production of energy. Today, more than a third of our households have no direct electricity connection and nearly two-thirds of our people are denied basic sanitary conditions. Over half of our children suffer from malnutrition and over two-thirds of our pregnant mothers are anaemic.
The prime minister’s concerns are, thus, patently contradictory and his concern for our people’s livelihood security is, thus, rendered hollow. Clearly, therefore, if people’s livelihood has to be improved, then the trajectory of our neo-liberal economic reforms, whose objective is to bolster private profit, need to be reversed.
The year 2012 thus needs to be a year where popular pressure through massive people’s mobilisation must be mounted on the government to change its policy direction towards building a better India that ensures the true livelihood security for all our people.
(January 4, 2012)