President addresses the Parliament

The budget session of the Parliament opened on 21 February with the customary address by the President. It was Pranab Mukherjee’s maiden speech as President of India. The speech has come at a time when firstly, the UPA II Government is passing through a difficult period of allegations of scams and corruption at various levels, and secondly when the next parliamentary election is only a year away.
The President began his speech saying that an aspirant India was demanding more opportunities, greater choices, better infrastructure, and enhanced safety and security was emerging. The passion, energy and enterprise of our youth will take India to new heights.
Obviously in these speeches, the President usually touches upon the burning issues of the day besides reiterating some broad and long range features of the Government’s economic policy. As the country is passing through economic slow down, it is a matter of much worry for the Government. It is in this context that the President said that elected representatives are burdened by “gathering anxieties about economic slowdown, job security and employment prospects”. Alluding to the recent case of rape and murder of a Delhi young woman, President stated that people were concerned about the security of our women and children. But economic slow down was not anything specific to India alone. Global as well as domestic factors have affected our growth, the President pointed out. Nevertheless the government responded to the situation by taking several measures to revive investment activity and investor sentiment.
In this back ground, the President appreciated that the Government had taken the step to rollout the Direct Benefits Transfer System. This would enable Government sponsored benefits such as scholarships, pensions and maternity benefits to flow directly into the accounts of beneficiaries, who can access them using their Aadhaar number. This system will also cover wages and subsidies on food and LPG and help cut down leakages, bring millions of people into the financial system and lead to better targeting of beneficiaries. It will be a trend-setter in the use of modern technology to bring benefits to our poorest citizens, especially in rural areas. However, the Direct Benefits Transfer System will not be a substitute for public services and will be complementary to the Public Distribution System.
The President spoke at length on what measures the Government was taking to improve the health of country’s economy. It has announced a roadmap for fiscal consolidation by containing the current year’s fiscal deficit at 5.3% of the GDP. The Government is also working with State Governments to reach a consensus on the Goods and Services Tax.
Agriculture is the mainstay of our economy. In that context the President said that there was reason for cheer on the agricultural front. The growth in agriculture and allied sectors during the 11th Plan was 3.7% compared to 2.4% in the 10th Plan. Relentless efforts of farmers coupled with conducive policies of the Government have resulted in record food-grain production for two consecutive years with last year achieving a peak of 260 million tons. This year, despite erratic and deficient rainfall, it is projected that we will produce more than 250 million tons of food-grains. The President also touched upon horticulture and milk production, the allied departments of agricultural activities and gave a satisfactory position in that respect.
The President spoke of various national schemes that were supplementing our agricultural production activity and were spread over the entire country. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme continues to break new ground in Government’s effort to provide work to those who seek employment during times of hardship. Around 5 crore households were provided employment under the scheme in 2011-12.
In order to make available improved housing for the rural poor, the Government has substantially enhanced the assistance under Indira Awas Yojana by increasing it from Rs. 45,000 to Rs. 70,000 per unit in plain areas and from Rs. 48,500 to Rs. 75,000 per unit in hilly and difficult areas including Left Wing Extremism affected areas. The next phase of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission is being finalized. Meanwhile, the tenure of the current Mission has been extended until March 2014 for completion of ongoing projects and for sanction of new projects so as to maintain the momentum of development of urban infrastructure. In order to give a push to capacity building efforts of Urban Local Bodies, the Government has decided to create a separate fund of Rs. 1,000 crore. Government is giving priority to addressing the problem of contamination of sources of drinking water. During 2012-13, 5% of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme Fund has been earmarked for allocation to States facing this problem. A Rural Water Supply & Sanitation Project for Low Income States, estimated at nearly Rs. 5000 crore, is being developed with the help of the World Bank to assist States that are lagging behind in the coverage of piped water supply.
Speaking about security situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, the President said it has shown a perceptible improvement. He said the number of fatalities in incidents of terrorist violence in 2012 declined by nearly half as compared to 2011 and Government has accorded high priority to border management. In addition to the work of border fencing, roads and floodlighting along the borders with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, Government has decided to undertake the construction of 509 additional border outposts along the Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-Pakistan border. He said that the Government is committed to dealing with Left Wing Extremism in a comprehensive manner. It is pursuing a two pronged approach of conducting proactive and sustained operations against extremists and focusing attention on development and governance issues in extremist affected areas. A new scheme for construction and strengthening of 400 police stations has been started in the affected areas. The first phase of the plan for improving road connectivity in 34 most affected districts at a cost of Rs. 7,300 crore is likely to be completed by March, 2015.
The speech of the President was a successful effort to present the fair side of Government especially in view of the fast approaching parliamentary elections in 2014. There are certain important issues before this session and we have to see how the Government is able to steer the ship through the storm.