There have been several welcome announcements in the budget that deserve appreciation, even if some of them are symbolic and segmented. For instance, the venture capital fund for MSME, district level incubation and accelerator program, start up village entrepreneurship program for rural youth, technology research center network to promote innovation, entrepreneurship and agro industry, national climate adaptation fund, virtual classroom for cultivating knowledge, fund for restoring soil health, halting deteriorating malnutrition, etc., are encouraging ideas. I welcome them and hope that the implementation of these ideas will be responsive and agile to meet the expectations of entrepreneurial community of the country. The tragedy is that many of the earlier program, for e.g., Food Security Act to provide cheap food to people who neither demanded nor deserved it has not been refocused only for the poor. There was a strong opportunity to recast these program so that we first eliminate the worst form of poverty and only later alleviate the stress of other vulnerable communities. Otherwise, we will achieve neither. The rural employment guarantee program has been only marginally modified to give stress on productive assets even on private land [which is appreciable], but the definition of the work has not been changed. The fundamental assumption of the last 67 years that a large majority of rural poor are so-called unskilled laborers has not been challenged.
Despite some stress on skill building, the idea of leveraging traditional skills and competences has been left out. The physical work has not been matched or widened to include mental work. Irony is that UPA government didn’t give due recognition to the skilled people of the country and the NDA government has continued that prejudice. If a sculptor, highly qualified mason or a gardener is asked to dig earth and break stones to get employment even on private land, the erosion of innate skills does not stop. To consider majority of the traditional skills and knowledge systems as redundant and dispensable is not a worthy assumption for a dignified society. Many of these skilled people can become part time teachers in the schools to teach young kids and build their interest in various other forms of societal learning. Many of these artists could be engaged to paint the walls of primary and secondary schools and encourage children who have talent to join them. What is wrong in considering that as a legitimate work to be paid for under MNREGA?
The restructuring of District Innovation Fund has been left out. If the Finance Secretary organizes a tele-conference with any 50 District Collectors, he will know in an hour that the DIF is being used mainly to buy furniture, upgrade offices and such other things, which have nothing to do with innovation. The Fund requires decentralization and a sharp focus on only innovative ideas from or for public systems and purposes. I hope 14th Finance Commission will take note of it and try to restructure both the DIF and also the Center for Innovation in Public Systems, both of which have failed in their mission. I feel guilty for not having anticipated this outcome at the time of preparing the proposals.
We should learn from the mistakes of the past and create a highly flexible, trust based and responsive system of implementation for various initiatives announced in the budget. The Venture Capital Fund for MSME should include at least 20 per cent allocation for early stage technologies by young engineering and other technology students for taking proof of concept ideas further. It is well known that more than 90 per cent ideas are aborted for want of angel support at the early stages. Despite focus on youth in the manifesto, the neglect of youth in such a major program is difficult to understand. I am happy that promotion of entrepreneurship based on innovative ideas at village and district level has received so much attention. I find the argument of kick-starting the process now and expanding these initiatives in the next budget in 2015 quite meaningful. This way each program machinery will have a chance to prove its worth and thus claim higher share of resources next year. Seeding ideas with smaller allocation of rupees 100 crore each is a sensible entrepreneurial model of public policy experimentation. If UPA government had followed this approach, they would not commit huge resources for programs, which they could not properly target and deliver. The high quality generic medicine in public health system was a good idea but poorly implemented. National Innovation Council was also a good idea but again very poorly implemented. Not one penny could be invested in the early stage ideas of young innovators. Will the new government repeat the mistakes of the previous government or learn from it will become apparent from the reply to the budget speech in the coming few weeks. I hope the Finance Minister will not hesitate in making amends wherever necessary to give a fillip to the entrepreneurial model, so strongly articulated as a contrast to the legacy of only entitlement based model of development. Indian growth hinges on the growth of MSME and young start-ups. They deserve empathy, early stage hassle free support [not only in the form of venture capital but also R&D grants where necessary] and a time bound responsiveness. Grassroots innovators have remained on the margin of the developmental story. We will wait till the minds on the margin don’t remain the marginal minds as far as resource allocation is concerned. Sooner or later, the margins of the country will become the mainstream.