I am delighted to address the first session of both Houses of Parliament after the elections to the 14th Lok Sabha. My greetings to all the members, particularly to the newly elected members of the Lok Sabha. You had all worked during the last three months in the scorching heat of the summer, had many sleepless nights, travelled hundreds and thousands of kilometres, met thousands of voters and explained how you will shape the future of the people and the country. On your successful election to this august body, I congratulate you all.
Before I dwell on the task ahead of us, I would like to congratulate the Election Commission of India for smoothly conducting the 14th Lok Sabha elections using Electronic Voting Machines in all the booths for the first time.
The first general elections of this millennium reflect the firm conviction of our people in the democratic process of change. These elections have demonstrated the vibrancy of our democracy.
The outcome of the elections is indicative of people’s yearning for inclusiveness – economic, social and cultural and their rejection of the forces of divisiveness and intolerance. The verdict is for establishing the rule of law and repairing our secular fabric. This Government is committed to providing the right ambience for fulfilling the aspirations implicit in the people’s mandate.
The Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance, supported by the Left and other like-minded parties, reflects the commitment of all participants to implement this programme and making it the foundation for collective maximum performance. Only through your active participation in discussions pertaining to national development and your determination to resolve all the problems coming in the way of implementing development programmes, will we be able to achieve the goal of making a billion people smile.
The Common Minimum Programme is indicative of the broad thrust of the priorities of this Government. It will be the sincere effort of the Government to implement the Programme during the next five years.
However, the precise content and phasing of programmes will depend on both the availability of resources and the pace of improvement of the absorptive capacity of various sectors. Our effort will be to move forward on the twin roads of efficiency and equity while maintaining a high degree of fiscal and financial discipline. My government will need to devise imaginative measures to ensure that our macro economic policies balance appropriately the concerns for rapid growth, stability and social equity.
My government is committed to preserving, protecting and promoting secular values and enforcing the law without fear or favour to deal with all obscurantist and fundamentalist elements that seek to disturb social amity and peace. We will ensure that the economy maintains a growth rate of at least 7-8% per year for a sustained period and in a manner that generates employment and provides assured livelihood for each family. While doing so, my government will focus on improving income and welfare of farmers, farm labour and workers; empowering women and providing equality of opportunity for people belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs and religious minorities.
My government will carry forward the process of social and economic development so that the 21st century becomes India’s century. This calls for speeding up economic reforms that ushered the country into an era of rapid economic growth. Further reforms will be carried out in agriculture, industry and services. The reforms will have a human face and will ensure that the benefits flowing from such reforms reach the urban poor and rural areas, where the vast majority of our population lives.
The Government stands committed to accelerating the pace of rural development through grassroots democracy in consonance with the letter and spirit of the constitutional provisions in this regard. Our country has approximately 2.3 lakh Village Panchayats and Panchayati Raj institutions at intermediate and district levels. These will be empowered through effective devolution of functions, functionaries and finances to emerge as true institutions of participative democracy. The Gram Sabha will be empowered to emerge as the foundation of the Panchayati Raj system. The Government will ensure that all funds for poverty alleviation and rural development programmes get directly credited to Panchayat bodies to enable them to serve the people better. Appropriate guidelines will be prepared for effective utilisation of such funds.
A substantial portion of Government’s investment will be channelled to the villages, with special emphasis on improving basic infrastructure such as roads, power and drinking water in rural areas.
Connectivity of village complexes for providing economic opportunities to all segments of people will get special emphasis to bridge the rural-urban divide. Let us not have a mindset that poorer quality rural infrastructure or poor products would suffice for rural consumption.
Public investment in agriculture will be stepped up significantly with focus on the backward and poor regions so as to substantially boost farmers’ income. The Government will ensure that the flow of agricultural credit is significantly stepped up and the coverage of small and marginal farmers by institutional lending expands substantially. The entire rural credit system will be restored to health. Government is sensitive to the debt-burden of farmers and will take suitable steps in this regard. Farm insurance schemes will be made more responsive to the needs of farmers. The Government will actively encourage investments in agro-processing industries to reduce wastage and encourage value addition benefitting farmers.
The Government will introduce a special programme for dry-land farming. An intensive agricultural development programme for the districts in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country will be put in place. Watershed development projects will be promoted on a large-scale, and the wasteland development programme lying dormant these past few years will be revived.
My government will ensure that farmers all over the country receive fair and remunerative prices and the government agencies, entrusted with the responsibility for procurement and marketing, pay special attention to farmers in poor and backward states and districts. Our negotiations in the World Trade Organization will be such as to fully protect the interests and livelihood of our large farming community, which is the backbone of our country. The Government will ensure proper implementation of minimum wage laws for farm labour. Effective measures will be taken to protect the interest of all agricultural workers. The process of land reforms will be speeded up and efforts to distribute surplus productive land to the landless will be redoubled.
The Government will accelerate the development and use of the country’s irrigation potential. Starting with peninsular rivers, the environmental, ecological and techno-economic feasibility of linking the rivers of the country will be carefully examined. Steps will be taken to ensure that long-pending inter-state disputes on rivers and water-sharing, like the Cauvery Water dispute, are settled amicably keeping in view the interests of all parties to the dispute. All ongoing irrigation projects will be completed in a time-bound manner.
The Government is concerned that a significant portion of our population does not have access to safe drinking water. My government will work with the State Governments to draw up innovative schemes including harvesting rainwater and de-silting existing ponds. Effective measures will be taken to put an end to the acute shortage of drinking water in drought prone areas and in cities like Chennai, including through setting up desalination plants wherever found viable. Special problems of habitations in hilly terrains will be addressed immediately.
The Government is painfully aware of the shrinking employment opportunities for the youth. The Government will adopt policies to expand employment opportunities by creating a climate conducive to investments in the organised sector. Along with vastly expanding credit facilities for small-scale industry and self-employment, the services sector will be given all support to realise its true employment potential. New jobs will also be created in other areas like village industries, textiles, handicrafts, horticulture, aquaculture, forestry, dairying and agro-processing so as to benefit the rural and urban youth. With a view to providing guaranteed employment for 100 days in a year to at least one able bodied person in each rural household, a national Employment Guarantee Act will be legislated soon and implemented in a phased manner.
To enhance the employability of our youth, systematic efforts will be made to appropriately vocationalise secondary education and to establish at least one industrial training institute in each development block of the country through creative public-private partnerships.
Women and children, particularly those belonging to poor households, are the most vulnerable groups of our society that need special attention. Government will earmark at least one-third of all funds flowing into panchayats for programmes relating to the development of women and children. Village women and their associations will be encouraged to assume responsibility for all development schemes relating to drinking water, sanitation, primary education, health and nutrition. There will be a major expansion in schemes for micro-finance based on self-help groups, particularly in the backward and ecologically sensitive regions.
The Government will take the lead to introduce legislation for one-third reservation for women in Vidhan Sabhas and the Lok Sabha. Legislation on domestic violence and against gender discrimination will be enacted. Complete legal equality for women in all spheres will be made a practical reality.
It is a matter of concern that even today over a third of babies born in India are under-weight reflecting acute malnourishment, particularly of the girl child. Nutrition programmes, will be expanded on a significant scale with special focus on the girl-child.
A national cooked nutritious mid-day meal scheme, funded mainly by the central government will be introduced in a phased manner in primary and secondary schools. The Government will progressively universalise the Integrated Child Development Services scheme.
The State has an important role to play in providing requisite support to the disabled so that they do not get left out of the mainstream. The Government will initiate special measures to ensure that the disabled get equal opportunity and are in a position to meaningfully contribute to the task of nation building. Trade and industry will be sensitised to their social obligations in this respect. Our senior citizens also deserve special care. The Government will consider their problems and initiate measures that would make their lives more comfortable in their old age.
Health is an essential element in the development process and a crucial input for improving the quality of life. The Government will increase public spending on health to at least 2-3% of GDP over the next five years, with the focus on primary health care. Universal immunisation programmes will be effectively implemented throughout the country to eliminate avoidable child-diseases. The Government will step up public investment in programmes to control communicable diseases. A special thrust will be given to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country. A national scheme of health insurance for poor families will be introduced. The Government will take all steps to ensure the availability of life-saving drugs at reasonable prices. The Family Welfare programmes will be strengthened and revitalised.
India’s greatest resource is its people. The full potential of our human resources has yet to be effectively utilised. High priority will, therefore, be accorded to education. The Government will aim at increasing public spending on education so as to ultimately reach at least 6% of GDP, with half the amount earmarked for primary and secondary education.
Acess will be proposed on all central taxes to finance the commitment to universalise access to quality basic education. A National Commission on Education will be set up to allocate resources and monitor programmes.
My government is aware of the systematic erosion of autonomy of our institutions of repute in recent years. My government will ensure that all institutions of higher learning and professional education get back the autonomy that they enjoyed earlier. At the same time, the Government will ensure that nobody is denied professional education because he or she is poor. Apart from increasing the supply of loan scholarships and refinance through banks, the Government will put in place institutional mechanisms to provide loans at affordable rates to those who can not afford the costs of college and university education in science, engineering, medicine and management studies.
Academic excellence and professional competence will be the sole criteria for all appointments to bodies such as the Indian Council for Historical Research, Indian Council for Social Science Research, University Grants Commission, National Council for Educational Research and Training etc. Steps will be taken to remove the communalisation of the school syllabus that has taken place in recent years.
It is a matter of serious concern that the forces of communalism have been able to vitiate the atmosphere in the country leading to out-break of riots, the most gruesome face of which was witnessed recently in Gujarat. My government is determined to combat such forces. The Government will adopt all possible measures to promote and maintain communal peace and harmony so that minorities feel completely secure. My government will enact a model law to deal with communal violence and encourage states to adopt it.
The Government will examine the question of providing constitutional status to the Minorities Commission and will strive for recognition and promotion of Urdu language under Articles 345 and 347 of the Constitution.
On Ayodhya issue, my government will await the verdict of the courts while encouraging negotiations between parties to the dispute for an amicable settlement, which, in turn, must receive legal sanction. The Government is also committed to implementing the Protection of Places of Worship Act, 1992.
Steps will be taken to establish a Commission to look into issues relating to direct affiliation of minority professional institutions with central universities. Measures will also be taken to spread modern and technical education among minority communities. A National Commission will be established to make recommendations on how best to enhance the welfare of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities, including through reservation in education and employment.
The Government is sensitive to the issue of affirmative action including reservations in the private sector and it is committed to faster socio-economic and educational development of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. My government will initiate a dialogue with political parties, industry and other bodies on how best the private sector can fulfill the aspirations of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Reservation quotas in Government, including those relating to promotions, will be fulfilled in a time-bound manner. To codify all policies on reservations, appropriate legislation will be enacted. The Government will launch a comprehensive national programme for minor irrigation of lands owned by people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Landless families will be endowed with land through implementation of land ceiling and redistribution legislation. No reversal of ceilings legislation will be permitted.
State governments will be urged to bring about a legislation conferring ownership rights in respect of minor forest produce on people from weaker sections working in forests. Eviction of tribal communities and other forest-dwelling communities from forest areas will be stopped. The Government will reconcile the objectives of environmental conservation and faster economic growth without jeopardising the ecological balance or diluting the objectives of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. An effective system will be put in place for rehabilitating the tribal communities displaced by development projects.
My government is concerned about the growth of Naxalite violence in various parts of the country. Rather than being an ordinary law-and-order problem, such violence is symptomatic of a much deeper socio-economic malaise, which needs to be treated systematically. My government will, therefore, look into the causes behind the growth of such senseless violence and take steps to put the Naxalite-affected areas on a higher trajectory of economic growth so that they catch up with the rest of the country.
The Government will strengthen the public distribution system particularly in the poorest and backward blocks of the country and also involve women and ex-servicemen’s cooperatives in its management at the local level.
Special schemes will be launched to ensure that foodgrains reach the most destitute and infirm. Grain banks in chronically food-scarce areas will be established. Antyodaya cards for all households at risk of hunger will be introduced.
The Government is firmly committed to ensuring the welfare and well-being of all workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector who constitute over 90% of our workforce. Social security, health insurance and other schemes for such workers, fishermen and fisherwomen, toddy tappers, leather workers, plantation labour, beedi workers etc. will be expanded. The Government will establish a National Commission to examine the problems that the enterprises operating in the unorganised sector are facing.
My government recognises that some changes are needed in labour laws so that the manufacturing sector grows rapidly with concomitant expansion in the employment opportunities. However, such changes must ensure that workers and their families are fully protected. The Government will pursue a dialogue with industry and trade unions on this issue before coming up with specific proposals. The Government firmly believes that labour-management relations in our country must be marked by consultations, cooperation and consensus. Tripartite consultations with trade unions and industry on all proposals concerning them will be actively pursued.
Development of infrastructure will get a high priority.