Narrow and sectarian ideologies have “no place in a modern, progressive and secular country,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Thursday, even as he told Pakistan that for relations to improve, its territory could not be used for anti-India activity.
The first was a veiled warning to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and RSS fronts that have been playing a role in recent communal incidents, whether in Bihar’s Bettiah, Katihar and Nawada or in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar; the second set the ground rules for dialogue with Pakistan — that India’s western neighbour would have to honour the commitment made in the joint statement of January 2004.
Tributes to Armymen
Simultaneously, the Prime Minister described the recent killing of five jawans on the Line of Control as a “dastardly attack”, promising to “take all possible steps to prevent such incidents in the future”.
Paying tributes to the armed forces and paramilitary personnel who had “worked in difficult conditions” during the Uttarakhand tragedy, he paid homage to “the officers and men of the Air Force, ITBP and NDRF who sacrificed their lives to save others.” He was “deeply pained” over the loss of 18 brave sailors in the fire that destroyed the submarine, INS Sindurakshak, early on Wednesday.
Dr. Singh may have been delivering his 10th consecutive Independence Day address from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort — an achievement in itself — but he made clear he was not done yet: “We have journeyed a large distance in the last decade. But much remains to be done,” he said, stressing, “the process of change that we have initiated will be continued in the coming time.”
Dr. Singh’s style and language were characteristically low key, but there was steel in his assertions, as he listed his government’s achievements, and the role that Congress-led governments in the past had played in nation-building. It was an appeal for a third term for the Congress-led UPA at the Centre, as he responded to criticism by Opposition parties of his policies on economy, foreign relations and security ahead of general elections due in 2014.
Expectedly, the Prime Minister highlighted the food security programme as “the largest effort of its kind in the whole world” and the Aadhaar scheme that would help people access banking facilities and social welfare schemes. Thanks to MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act], rural wages had increased; MSP [minimum support price] for wheat and rice had doubled, while the introduction of MSP for minor forest produce would help tribals; and the rural per capita consumption in the period 2004 to 2011 had increased four times faster than earlier. About 2,00,000 km of new roads to connect villages, and over 37,000 km of new highways to facilitate travel and trade had been added since 2004, while over 40 airports had been built or upgraded and mobile phone penetration had gone up from seven per cent to 73 per cent.
While acknowledging that there had been an economic slowdown, Dr. Singh pointed out that the average rate of growth in the last nine years had been the fastest since Independence. The government, he said, was “working hard to remedy the situation,” hastening the process of government clearances for industry, building an environment more conducive to trade and industry and increasing investment in the economy.
If the Cabinet Committee on Investment was working to remove hindrances in the way of stalled projects, a push was being given to new infrastructure projects that include two new ports, eight new airports, new industrial corridors and rail projects.
“Our growth will accelerate, new employment opportunities will be generated and there will be improvements in the infrastructure sector,” he promised. A new scheme, targeting one million beneficiaries, under which trained youth will get financial assistance, was also promised.
Strides in education
A key section of the Prime Minister’s speech focused on education: the Right to Education Act had ensured that almost every child was being imparted education in primary schools, that the number of those entering college had more than doubled in the last nine years and scholarships were being given to more than two crore children. In higher education, eight new IITs, seven new IIMs, 16 new Central universities and 10 new NITs had opened. There is a need to improve the quality of education. To achieve this, it is necessary to lay more emphasis on training of teachers.
Referring to the recent midday meal tragedy in Bihar, the Prime Minister promised reforms in its implementation.