Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Toilet talk and zombies in New Delhi

There’s been a great deal of toilet talk in New Delhi recently — and I don’t mean of the scatological kind.

To be more accurate, it’s talk about toilets, because in a departure from the usual political rhetoric, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been putting the subject high on his agenda.

Actually, it makes a great deal of sense because more than 600 million Indians – that’s about half the population – have to defecate in the open. There is no other place to go.

Last year the problem took a deadly turn when two village girls, who went out into fields to relieve themselves after dark, were set upon by a gang of youths, raped and murdered.       

Modi’s aim is to have toilet blocks built in every one of the tens of thousands of rural villages that do not have sewerage connections. To ease the burden on existing services in towns and cities, he is calling for more toilets to be installed in bus and rail stations.   

Recently IT billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates was in the Indian capital and came away impressed with the Prime Minister’s passion to fight poverty and improve the health of his country’s poorest people.

“He’s setting aggressive goals and pushing people to get them done quickly,” Gates said afterwards.

“He is having a lot of intense meetings with various Ministers asking them what they can get done in 100 days; can they make their goals more concrete, more ambitious?”

Modi has repeatedly said he wants sanitation to be available to all Indians by 2019 — the same timeframe he has set for cleaning up the River Ganga, sacred to Hindus, but in places little more than an open sewer.

One issue on which he is taking some flack is his decision to pump more money into the nation’s ‘zombie industries’, inefficient State-owned businesses that have been kept afloat through generous subsidies from the previous Congress-led Government.

The companies were set up in the years following independence in 1947 when India was following the Soviet Union’s model for development. Most run at a loss and at least 20 have stopped production altogether yet still pay their staff full wages.

Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in May campaigning on a policy of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and it was widely believed the zombies would be the first casualties.

While a number have been slated for closure, the Government believes around two-thirds could be revived with targeted injections of finance.

The move has drawn shock and ridicule from some critics who claim Modi is shrinking from the hard decisions.

However, the Prime Minister can point to his success in resuscitating zombie companies in his home State of Gujarat during his 13 years as Chief Minister there.

Some 20 publically-owned companies returned to profit through a measured injection of funds, the appointment of independent boards and a ban on political meddling.

Given that nationwide the zombies employ tens of thousands of workers, one final effort to turn them around may be worth the risk.  





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