Text of Minister for Rural Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation, Mr. Jairam Ramesh's interview with The Daily Star (interviewed by Inam Ahmed and Rezaul Karin)
The Daily Star (TDS): You look after India's rural development. Would you tell us how much integrated India's rural economy is with the centre?
Jairam Ramesh (JR): India can shine only if rural India shines. "India Shining" was the election slogan of an Indian political party and parts of India are definitely shining. But, there are large parts of India which are not and there are many challenges to be met. So, unless rural India, where 70% of Indians live, shines, all of India cannot.
Large segments of the Indian economy have integrated into the world economy and it is true that India now is amongst the fastest growing economies in the world. But we still have many challenges; such as in nutrition, education, health, sanitation. So, that is the biggest rural development challenge for us: ensuring that high economic growth benefits all sections of society.
TDS: What are your plans in meeting that goal?
JR: Well, there is no one magic formula. You have to go on multiple programmes. First, you have to ensure that all families have access to basic amenities -- safe drinking water, sanitation, food security, employment security. That is one aspect. The growth can be triggered by market forces, but the process of making this growth inclusive cannot be left to the market. That is where the role of the government is very important.
So, it is both a market-led strategy to accelerate economic growth and a government-led strategy to ensure that growth is inclusive, that the benefits of growth reach all parts of our society. And, as mentioned before, we have some successes, but also have huge challenges ahead. In fact, not many know that Bangladesh is doing better than many fast growing Indian states. For example, regarding malnutrition; the proportion of children that are malnourished and the fertility rate in Bangladesh are lower than some of the Indian states. Infant mortality rate is lower in Bangladesh than some of the fastest growing Indian states.
For me, Bangladesh is a very important nation, because what Bangladesh demonstrates is that at lower levels of per capita income you can still have better social outcomes. Bangladesh has lower per capita income than Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, but some of the social outcomes in Bangladesh are higher and better than those of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. That is why I have been telling my colleagues in India that we must learn from Bangladesh.
In fact, sometime ago, I did an analysis comparing Bangladesh with some Indian states -- how Bangladesh is doing it on different indicators. It's very interesting and came as a shock to many of my friends in India. My colleagues did not believe the analysis.
For us, economic growth is very important because only through this growth you will be able to have surplus required for making the public investments necessary in education, health, nutrition.
TDS: How do you evaluate the role of the NGOs and microfinance in attaining better social outcomes?
JR: I do not romanticise NGOs. They are not a substitute to the government and without the government you cannot really sustain or scale up. NGOs supplement what the government is doing. They help in social mobilisation but they cannot become parallels to the government.
Nevertheless, looking at the last 25 years of Bangladesh's development experience, the self-help groups and microfinance have played a very important role in empowering the people. We are now learning from Bangladesh's experience.
We have started a huge programme of the self-help groups, which is linked with banks. A team came to Bangladesh from India two months ago to look at Bangladesh's projects and experience.
In India wherever we have been successful, the locally elected governments have been very powerful. Empowering local governments is important. The local governments must be politically, financially and administratively empowered. You cannot have inclusive growth without inclusive governance with representation of all sections of the society.
TDS: You have talked about "green rural development." What do you mean by this?
JR: Greening rural development in India and Bangladesh is vital. In fact this is a joint initiative that I would like to take with Bangladesh. How do you use rural development to improve the resilience of rural economy, its adaptation power to climate change? Climate change is a reality and there are no two countries in the world which will be more profoundly affected by climate change than us neighbouring countries.
But what does one really mean by greening rural development? It is water conservation, ensuring water security and improving land productivity so that small farmers and local communities are able to deal with the effects of climate change in a more sustainable manner.
Whatever we do in rural development must be sustainable. If we use chemical fertilisers in an indiscriminate manner, the fertility of soil will be affected in the long run. And yields will start declining. We are already seeing it in parts of Punjab and Hariyana.
If we overdraw ground water, its table will go down and we won't have water security. So, greening of rural development is a common challenge both for India and Bangladesh. We have to work out our own solutions. When I was a minister for environment and forest, I had proposed a joint initiative for managing the Sundarbans ecosystem. That joint programme has finally started. Unfortunately it started only with tigers but we should realise that the Sundarbans is more than just tigers. There are people living there.
My vision for the joint Sundarban ecosystem was managing mangroves, coastal zone management, managing estuaries, climate change in Sundarbans, tiger patrolling. I have discussed this with your environment minister, with Gowher Rizvi and in fact I have even given a draft of the MoU.
TDS: What about common river management? We have 54 common rivers. For example, the Teesta treaty has not been signed but it is crucial for our survival in the north.
JR: We will go step by step. See, you are a competitive democracy, we are a competitive democracy too. So, we have to accept what is possible in democratic systems. I am sure one day the Teesta issue would be addressed. On Teesta, I share the feeling that it should have been done, but unfortunately it could not be done because there were certain concerns on the West Bengal side from the chief minister. Those concerns are being addressed now.
TDS: You were an environment minister. What is your take on the river linking project in India?
JR: In my speech in the parliament I termed the river linking project as a social, ecological and economic disaster. But within basins you can transfer water, and it is happening. Rajsthan Canal has taken water of the tributaries. The Telegu-Ganga project has brought waters down from one state to another. So, there is limited scope, but large scales inter linking of rivers, which is the vision of some romantic engineers, is ecologically, and even from economic view, quite a nightmare.
TDS: How do you think Bangladesh and India should work for more cooperation in joint rivers and other issues?
JR: The prosperity of India depends on the prosperity of Bangladesh and vice versa. We are all in a co-prosperity region. It does not help India if Bangladesh does not grow. We must be less argumentative, but more pragmatic. We must identify the areas where we can cooperate.
Of course, we will have differences: earlier we were told to withdraw export duties. Today, except for alcohol and cigarettes, all other exports from Bangladesh to India have been made duty free. Now comes the issue of para-tariff barriers on saarees and Hilsa fish. Those were addressed. In our countries we don't focus on the positives. We in India need to appreciate the concerns of Bangladesh regarding water security and the achievements that Bangladesh has made.
At the same time, in Bangladesh there must be a greater sensitivity to the Indian security concerns. Changes are there, and those should be institutionalised. They should not be dependent on political consideration. That is why our universities must cooperate. The greatest thing that happened in India and Bangladesh is the growing amount of businessmen who are interested. Five years ago we did not allow Bangladesh investment into India, but today I myself have been after some Bangladeshi companies like Pran and Nitol so they can go to Tripura. This was impossible ten years ago. So I was telling my Indian friends that liberalisation does not mean only Indian businesses investing in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis companies should also come and invest in India. This is a two-way street. I want some Indian IT companies to come to Bangladesh and invest.
TDS: Fighting corruption is important for economic growth. How has the rights to information served in combating corruption?
JR: Rights to Information has been the single most important administrative innovation in the last fifty years. No civil servant likes it, no politician likes it, but it has enforced a culture of transparency and accountability. It is very important.
But you need credible institutions to fight corruption.
Indian democracy functions. That a democracy is functioning apparently becomes clear when a regime loses. In victory everybody is magnanimous. It is important how you behave in defeat. It is where the test of a democracy comes. At times in India they lose elections and do not question the system, they gracefully leave. In Kerala last election, my party got 71 seats, the left got 69 seats. It bowed out. Mr. Atal Bihari in 1999 lost by one vote. he resigned. How you accept defeat is crucial in democracy. A sign of mature democracy is when regime changes take place peacefully.
TDS: What is your take on Anna Hazare?
JR: Now he is in politics. Let him test it out because ultimately you have to fight the battle. Either you stand on the sideline and become a commentator or you go in the field and become a participant. Last time he contested, all his candidates lost. Let him contest again.
TDS: Can we hope that the bill on constitutional amendment for land boundary agreement will be passed in the coming session?
JR: Yes, of course. Once it will be introduced, it will demonstrate our commitment. All the work is taking place now but the important thing is that it will be introduced in the parliament. The point that I want to make to you is not to reduce the India-Bangladesh relationship to a single-issue relationship. Don't think that India's seriousness will be demonstrated only by the Teesta deal. We are doing a lot of things. Out of one billion dollar credit line, 200 million dollars have been converted into grants to be used by Bangladesh in whatever fashion it wants.
Of 800 million dollars, the interest rate has been reduced to one percent and all exports from Bangladesh to India are duty-free. This is huge for India. People there are asking us why all this has been duty free and what will happen to the textile. The fact is that India's proposed dialogue among India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan is a huge step forward for India.