It's new Labour, Delhi-style

Observations on India

When Congress returned to power last May, the party owed its victory largely to promises to improve the lot of the third of India's population who live in desperate poverty. In his first speech as prime minister, Manmohan Singh committed himself to the "millions still plagued by illiteracy, disease, want, hunger and malnutrition".

Is he living up to the promise? On the positive side is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, which would ensure 100 hours' paid work annually for every rural household. Yet even this gives no timetable for nationwide implementation and, importantly, fails to establish a minimum number of adult female participants. Otherwise, Singh's government is looking decidedly new Labourish, courting private finance as much as public regulation.

For example, an agreement with the US to expand flights between the two countries has put the icing on the cake of an "open skies" policy that will also see the launch of low-cost private airlines and a 25 per cent drop in the price of air travel in the next few years. This month, Singh announced a National Knowledge Commission to increase productivity, channel science into practical inventions and harness the benefits of IT, particularly for the delivery of public services. All laudable aims and, in the case of the last, much needed to counter the power of India's self-serving babus or bureaucrats. But Singh's call for efficiency and a "knowledge-based, knowledge-sharing society" has more than a Blairite ring to it.

According to the Hindu newspaper, leading economists are also advising the country's finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, to reduce income tax, consider a voucher scheme for public health, keep wages in the employment guarantee scheme lower than market rates and re-evaluate "poverty lines".

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