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Political Economy

Why is the Congress’s Manifesto for Chhattisgarh Making the BJP Wary?

Media coverage has focused on the more “populist” proposals, but it is in fact the product of months of dialogue with the state's citizens.

In India, party manifestos are seldom taken seriously. Politicians, media and even voters tend to see them as obligatory documents that have a marginal impact on actual policy-making, particularly in states.

It is therefore noteworthy that Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a frontal attack on the Congress Party’s Chhattisgarh Jan Ghoshna Patra during a speech in Ambikapur, on November 16, 2018.

What is it about the Chhattisgarh manifesto that got under Modi’s skin?

One is that the document was the result of an unprecedented outreach to voters over a six-month period. The manifesto committee headed by Shri TS Singh Deo – not coincidentally the sitting MLA from Ambikapur – consulted with some thousand civil society groups in almost every district and met close to a lakh voters before considering what to put in it.

These included everyone from anganwadi and sanitation workers to farmers and fisherfolk.

Everyone had the opportunity to contribute suggestions. In meeting after meeting, the one-takeaway was how people appreciated the fact that a political party had come to them for ideas and suggestions.

In the process it became clear that lakhs of voters were largely dissatisfied with the Raman Singh government, and were looking to the Congress to address their issues. The Prime Minister’s tirade won’t change this reality.

The consultations generated many new ideas that were incorporated in the manifesto, but some of the more detailed proposals are the result of a series of parallel expert consultations. Of particular focus were health and education, areas in which Chhattisgarh lags the country and on which the Congress Party has decided to focus if elected.

Consider healthcare. A large number of people consulted – poor or rich, urban or rural, male or female – demanded access to quality, affordable healthcare.

The fact is that some 80% of Indians are forced to pay large out-of-pocket sums for private healthcare of uneven quality. Healthcare expenses drive huge numbers of Indians into debt or poverty every year. The manifesto proposes to build a state-funded and -operated healthcare system over the next five years that could be a model for the entire country.

A future Congress Party government in Chhattisgarh will:

  • Upgrade primary and community health centers to the Indian Public Health Standard, and open new ones in densely-populated urban areas,
  • Upgrade district hospitals and medical colleges, including multi- and super-specialty levels of service,
  • Provide free medicines and diagnostics,
  • Recruit hundreds of doctors and specialists and thousands of lab workers, community health workers and auxiliary nurse midwives at competitive salaries.

The Raman Singh government has a different approach: after years of inaction it is relying on the under-funded “Modicare” model for Chhattisgarh. The model is flawed because insurance coverage is limited to secondary and tertiary care, and world over insurance-led models have seen costs spiralling and coverage getting restricted over time. Insurance has a role, but cannot ensure delivery and access to healthcare.

Modicare proposes to upgrade primary health centres to health and wellness centres but has allocated a measly Rs 1,200 crore for the entire country. The Congress Party in Chhattisgarh alone – India’s 17th largest state – will spend somewhere in the region of Rs 4,000 crore per year to upgrade the state’s health infrastructure to a much higher standard.

Education is another area in which Chhattisgarh is a laggard. Every child in Chhattisgarh between the ages of 6 and 14 has a right to free and compulsory education under the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) Act. However the proportion of children in classes I to V going to fee-paying private schools has gone up from 10% in 2010 to 23% in 2016. Not all of this is voluntary – many struggling families are instead being forced to pay for an expensive private education because of inadequacies in government schools. The Congress manifesto has a particular focus on school education, starting with implementing the progressive RTE from pre-school to Class XII in a phased manner.

The solutions to Chhattisgarh’s schooling woes are no mystery; what is needed is the political will to implement them. Here’s what the Congress Party has said it will do:

  • School accountability will be improved by ensuring community participation via empowered school management committees.
  • Anganwadi workers will be trained to provide pre-school education to level the playing field with those children who have access to private pre-school.
  • There will be regular health check ups for school children at school to reduce malnourishment and morbidity.
  • Children will be taught in local languages at the primary level to improve school outcomes, and English will also be introduced at an early stage. The infrastructure of all government schools, starting with primary schools, will be upgraded to create an environment suitable for children to learn,
  • The government will fill 50,000 empty teacher posts, revitalise teacher training and promote teachers within primary, middle and secondary school levels so that each gets the high quality teachers it deserves.

These are not business-as-usual proposals. They are intended to transform public health and school education in the state.

Media coverage of the Congress manifesto has focused on the more “populist” proposals: an agricultural loan waiver, higher procurement prices, electricity tariff reductions and jobs and apprenticeship opportunities for the unemployed.

But the fact is that the manifesto is the product of months of deliberation and dialogue with the citizens of Chhattisgarh. And it is this that is making Modi nervous, that a political party went to the people to ask them what their next government should do.

Amitabh Dubey is an analyst and policy coordinator for the All India Professionals’ Congress. He participated in the manifesto process in Chhattisgarh.