WAKE UP, SMELL THE TEA
Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia wants to make tea India’s national drink. According to some surveys, it already is— 83 per cent of Indian households apparently consume tea. The Government’s stamp of approval for this relatively innocuous decision, which involves no commitment of expenditure or issuing of tenders, will take one whole year. Ahluwalia has an explanation. He says the Government wants to make the announcement to coincide with the 212th birth anniversary of Maniram Dewan, Assam’s first tea planter and a revolutionary against British rule, on April 17, 2013. He may as well have made the announcement on April 17, 2012.
But the Government of India works by due process. Ahluwalia says he needs to talk to Commerce Minister Anand Sharma. The commerce minister will no doubt want to talk to his bureaucrats. Cumbersome files will pass up and down. It’s quite possible that milk, not tea, will win eventually the coveted title— Amul began lobbying for it shortly after Ahluwalia’s tea announcement. Expect water to enter as a last, but hardly the least, contestant. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, presumably the final arbiter of all things national, will have to make a judgment call. As an MP from Assam, he should rule in favour of tea rather than milk. But lest he be seen making a firm decision, he may leave the matter to another Government.
The popularity of tea will certainly survive the UPA’S indecision. Given the dismal state of some other national symbols— the national animal, the tiger, is battling extinction as is the national sport, hockey— tea may yet welcome its narrow escape from a potential kiss of death. The star status of India’s economy, however, is unlikely to survive UPA’S indecision.
The Government has been quick to respond to messengers of bad news. Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu was admonished for speaking the bitter truth. Standard and Poor’s downgrade of India’s economic outlook from stable to negative was met by a “do not panic” and “we will overcome” response from the finance minister. Words, whether of admonishment or of reassurance, are no longer enough. The Government needs to change the message. It needs to show real progress on passing reformist legislation, on getting the bureaucracy back to taking decisions, and on reining in its runaway expenditure. That is how India will once again become an attractive destination for investment, so crucial for a growth rate of 8- 9 per cent.
UPA 2’ s track record is discouraging. The few major decisions it has taken in the last three years have been the antithesis of reform. The recent decision to enforce a tax amendment with retrospective effect has spooked all investors, not just Vodafone. Frequent decisions to ban the exports of key agricultural commodities like cotton, wheat and onions have hurt farmers. The decision to demarcate large tracts of forest land as no- go areas for mining has led to a serious coal shortage and a crippling power deficit. Ironically, paralysis, if it means status quo, may be a better state of affairs than retrograde policy action.
Would someone please give the UPA’S top brass a few cups of strong tea to awaken it from its slumber?
GIVEN THE DISMAL STATE OF SOME OTHER NATIONAL SYMBOLS— THE NATIONAL ANIMAL, THE TIGER, IS BATTLING EXTINCTION AS IS THE NATIONAL SPORT, HOCKEY— TEA MAYYET WELCOME ITS NARROW ESCAPE FROM A POTENTIAL KISS OF DEATH.