'Steps in the right direction' are not enough

This is a step in the right direction, and the government needs to do more.

You often read articles that have this sentence, typically authored by experts who are writing about some new initiative of the Indian government. These articles are very easy to find after the government has made a slew of announcements – such as during the Union budget presentation.

These articles have the following structure, on average: introducing the announcement, a brief description of what the announcement is about, comments about its desirability, and finally what the government should do to improve (often the bottom 50% of the article).

There was a time when such articles could have been understood to be suggestions to the government. Some news publications like The Hindu and Indian Express have traditionally prided themselves on counting influential lawmakers among the readers of their op-ed pages and editorials. But almost no one could think this is still the case, at least vis-à-vis the national government.

The one in power since 2014, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has always done only what it wants, frequently (and perhaps deliberately, if its actions during the COVID-19 pandemic are anything to go by) to the exclusion of expert advice. And this government has launched many schemes, programmes, missions, etc. that are steps in the right direction, and that’s it. They have almost never become better with time, and certainly not because bona fide experts demanded it.

Some examples: Ayushman BharatKISANSwachh BharatMudra Yojana and ‘Smart Cities’ (too many instances to cite). Most of these initiatives have been defined by lofty, even utopian, goals but lack the rigorous, accountable and integral implementation that these goals warrant. As such, the government’s PR and troll machineries simply spin the ministers’ announcements at the time they are made for media fodder, and move on.

To be sure, the government has some other initiatives it has worked hard to implement properly, such as ‘Make in India’ and the GST – a courtesy it has reserved for activities that contribute directly to industrialisation and economic growth, reflected in the fact that such growth has come in fits and starts, and has been limited to the richer.

So at this time, to laud “steps in the right direction” followed by suggestions to improve such initiatives is worse than a mistake: it is to flout an intentional ignorance of the government’s track record.

Instead, an article would be better if it didn’t give the government the benefit of the doubt, and criticised it for starting off on a weak note or for celebrating too soon.

Apart from making suggestions to the government, such articles have served another purpose: to alert their readers, the people, to what needs to happen for the initiatives in question to be deemed successful. So the experts writing them could also consider pegging their statements on this purpose – that is, communicating to their readers as to what components an initiative lacks and why, therefore, it would be premature to hope it will do good.