India’s Singh targets Mars mission
Manmohan Singh, Indian prime minister, has confirmed a high-tech space mission to Mars but simultaneously announced ambitious plans to provide basic electricity and banking services to every household in this country of 1.2bn people.
Giving his independence day speech from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, Mr Singh said: “This spaceship to Mars will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology.”
Official approval of the Mars orbiter was leaked by space officials two weeks ago, just as north India suffered power cuts affecting more than 600m people. That prompted criticism from some Indians who argued that the Congress-led coalition government should focus instead on basic infrastructure and sanitation.
The mild-mannered Mr Singh, in a speech peppered with bold targets but delivered in his usual low-key style, admitted that annual economic growth in the last fiscal year of 6.5 per cent was disappointing and said that growth, investment, jobs, control of government finances and energy were matters of “national security”.
Watched by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president who is seen as the power behind the throne, Mr Singh said: “Our next target is to provide electricity to each and every household in our country in the next five years and also to improve the supply of electricity.”
Mr Singh also outlined the beginnings of a plan to reform India’s corrupted welfare system, in which food handouts are often intercepted by middlemen and resold. The idea is to send payments directly into the bank accounts of the needy, but that will mean a big push to provide banking to millions of illiterate farmers.
He said more than half of rural households now had banking services, compared with 30 per cent a decade ago. “It will be our endeavour to ensure that all households benefit from bank accounts in the next two years.”
Sudheendra Kulkarni of the opposition Bharatiya Janata party said Mr Singh should have given more credit to non-Congress state governments, such as that of Gujarat in the west, which has promoted investment in water projects and power stations and has an electricity surplus.
“I believe that his [Mr Singh’s] hands are tied,” Mr Kulkarni said on NDTV after the speech. “He’s not really a prime minister who’s a political authority.”
In a nod to foreign and domestic investors dismayed by retroactive taxes, inconsistent policies and long bureaucratic delays, Mr Singh said his government would “leave no stone unturned to encourage investment”.
Investors themselves, however, will pay closer attention to the actions of Palaniappan Chidambaram, the recently reappointed finance minister, who has promised to improve conditions for business.