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Rekha Dixit
Rekha Dixit


Low point

70Mumbaiagainstneet Unfair play: Protests in Mumbai against NEET | Getty Images

Unpredictable twists and turns are routine in our public policy realm, demonstrating how hard is it to govern a billion plus population that thrives on diversity

  • Recently, there was a decision to set up a garbage-to-fuel plant at Deonar, Mumbai’s biggest dumping yard. But the project got stuck because of coastal zone regulations, which, however, didn’t stop the south Mumbai high rise, Adarsh apartments, from being built on the sea front.

Medical entrance tests were a mess this year. The Centre announced one common test for all government, private and deemed universities. The move was ostensibly to streamline the process and have students go through just one test, except that the announcement came after some tests had already been held. The government had been mulling over the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) since 2013, but introduced it almost without preamble, catching lakhs of aspiring doctors unawares.

The Indian Institute of Management, Indore, introduced a five-year combined bachelors and MBA programme a couple of years ago, to which many students were admitted. Now, the government has decided to scrap this scheme, very “considerately’’ offering affected students suitable exit routes.

In 2005, the Centre introduced a law to encourage special economic zones, promising them tax holidays for the first five years. The buzz now is that this law may be scrapped. Last year, the trade policy abruptly discontinued some export incentives and introduced new ones.

When it comes to laws and policies, India’s unpredictability is at its best, or worst, depending on the perspective. Education policies, taxation laws and any issue where the concern for environment crops up, are particularly susceptible to unpredictable twists and turns.

Sample this: At the time of purchase, a car owner pays road tax for 15 years. Yet, last summer, the National Green Tribunal announced that diesel cars older than ten years would not be allowed on Delhi’s roads. This was followed by a ban on registering new diesel vehicles over 2,000 cc. A similar ban has also been imposed in Kerala. The suddenness of the decision hit the automobile industry hard, leaving car owners puzzled.

Some years ago, the Manmohan Singh government scrapped board exams for class ten, introducing point-based grading. The move should have been followed with a corresponding easing of the class twelve assessment gradually. Instead, it has created a huge academic gap between the two exams, and every once in a while, the call to reintroduce class ten boards is revived.

“I’m sure other countries, too, have similar situations,’’ says economist Ajit Ranade. “But given our realities—too many agencies passing rules, too many laws combined with the plurality of our population and above all, India being the largest democracy, policy unpredictability becomes rather uniquely Indian.’’

A policy is often introduced to sort out an issue, but multiple issues then branch out. Again, some law is in conflict with another. Issues like net neutrality laws and academic decisions evoke public outcry, forcing the government to rollback decisions. A recent issue was the decision to tax withdrawals from provident fund. For years, PF has been the backbone of India’s retirement plans, an unpredicted taxation on it cast gloom on a lifetime’s savings. Public outcry stymied this proposal.

It’s a tough call; speedy solutions vs consistency, says Ranade. “Our approach is often to blame, we seek solutions for the symptoms, without going to the root. Often judicial decisions, like the scrapping of coal block allocations, end up having huge economic costs.’’

Not all policies are rolled back. Sometimes, the government prefers another route, that of indecision. The moratorium on genetically modified brinjal, since 2010, is one such. Scientists have been asking the government to decide one way or the other, but the future fate of the technology in India remains unpredictable.

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