The past week marked the 25th anniversary of economic reforms and the liberalisation of the Indian economy. The government ignored the occasion and the reason was not far to seek: the reforms were ushered in by a Congress government under P V Narasimha Rao and the BJP had, at that time, stoutly opposed them. (The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch survives to this day.) Imagine that Mr Vajpayee had been Prime Minister in 1991 (rather than in 1998) — the government would have gone to town with its own brand of celebrations!

The Congress party also did not commemorate the occasion in a significant manner. Dr Manmohan Singh, in his modest way, recalled the events of 1991, and gave credit to all those who deserved credit — although his contribution was the mightiest.

Don’t celebrate, reflect

I am not unhappy that we have not rejoiced on the achievements of the last 25 years. Celebrations or not, no one can take away the fact that millions of people were lifted out of poverty — of which 140 million were lifted during the period 2004-2014. No one can take away the fact that India, today, is a more open and more competitive economy and that we have a place at the high tables of the IMF, World Bank, ADB, G-20, WTO, BIS etc.

I am, however, unhappy that we are not reflecting on the lessons learned in the last 25 years and on the new frontiers to be conquered in the next 25 years. Why are the next 25 years the most critical in the history of India?

For centuries — stretching back to perhaps 3,000 years — India has been a poor country or, more accurately, a country of poor people. I believe that, for the first time, we are lifting people out of poverty instead of pushing people into poverty. I also believe that in the next 25 years we have a good chance of wiping out poverty completely — in the case of at least 100 million people it is abject poverty. If I had said this 25 years ago, I would have been laughed out of court by most people who believed that poverty is the fate of Indians. In the last 25 years, we have broken that fatalistic mindset.

India has a tryst with destiny, but we will fail if a significant proportion of the people is left out of the development process. The main reasons are two: poor education and poor healthcare.

School system in a shambles

Our school education system is in a shambles. Most children have no option but to go to a government/municipal school. The quality of education provided to them is abysmal. There is often no proper classroom; no library or laboratory; and no educational aids. Teachers are absent (sometimes in pre-arranged turns); many teachers fail a knowledge or skills test. A fifth-grade student cannot do a third-grade math sum. A so-called ‘topper’ pronounces ‘political science’ as ‘prodigal science’ and describes it as a subject dealing with cooking. It is a miracle that some students pass out of such schools with credit and go on to achieve distinction in college or university.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act were intended to remedy the situation. While there has been a quantitative expansion of educational facilities (reflected in higher enrolment), there has been practically no improvement in the quality of education imparted in public schools.

Crumbling healthcare

Healthcare is no better. There has been a quantitative expansion of the Primary Health Centre (PHC) scheme, but it is still bedevilled by the absence of doctors, nurses, medicines and equipment. Government hospitals at all levels are overburdened. Beds are scarce, medicines have to be purchased by the patient, basic tests or procedures are not done free of cost, and waiting lists for appointments or surgery are too long. Block- and taluk-level hospitals have become mere referral hospitals. The Universal Health Scheme is a non-starter.

The only way in which we can accelerate and sustain the pace of development is to ensure that every able-bodied adult can work and contribute to economic development. A poorly educated workforce or an unhealthy workforce cannot acquire a competitive edge or improve productivity.

If the Indian economy grows at 6 per cent or 7 per cent or 8 per cent, it will continue to attract FDI. Money will flow into India. Infrastructure will be built. Factories will come up. Doing business will become easier in course of time. Regulations will be more helpful to growth. But a poorly educated and unhealthy workforce will be a severe drag on the economy.

The next frontiers to be conquered are ‘school education’ and ‘primary and secondary healthcare’. The goal must be to make both universal and completely free. The best ministers and the best civil servants must be tasked with managing education and healthcare. The fact that state governments and the Central government share authority on these two subjects need not be an obstacle. The economic and electoral dividends of improving education and healthcare will motivate the Centre and the states to work together, and there will be room for experimentation.

Don’t regret if you were too young to participate in the reforms process of the last 25 years; the next 25 years will be more challenging and eventful.