A much admired quality, initiative, can in a leader improve the lives of his people. The key of course is well considered and clearly thought-out initiatives.
In his long political career Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India has introduced some startling initiatives, although often with mixed results.
His clean India campaign aimed at ending open defecation, common in rural areas and estimated to be practiced by 620 million or by half of India’s population, was lauded even by opposition parties. NGOs welcomed it and the Gates Foundation presented Mr. Modi an award. By 2019, 110 million toilets had been built and there was hope that diseases like diarrhea, sometimes fatal for children, would be significantly reduced.
Rural India does not have sewage systems to remove and treat human waste. So the toilets installed were open pit latrines requiring periodic emptying, a manual process performed by the lowest caste Indians, when available, for a fee. In the meantime, a pervasive smell permeated the house compound.
Once toilets were built in a village, the Modi government considered it free of open defecation. This was not factually true because installation is not the same as actual use. No systems were in place for proper maintenance, say NGOs like RICE the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics. According to them, a survey in late 2018 revealed that some 44 percent of Indians in an area surveyed still defecated in the open, although down from 70 percent. If one googles the question now, a figure around 620 million pops up. That is 44 percent of India’s population of 1.4 billion, and not too different from the estimate in 2014. To be fair the total population has increased since 2014.
Another Modi initiative commenced just before he left on a state visit to Japan in 2016. He delivered a speech (Nov. 8, 2016) announcing the abrupt withdrawal of 500 and 1000 rupee notes to be replaced by newly designed 500 and 2000 rupee denominations. This would attack corruption and ferret out illegal cash holdings, he claimed. The move removed 86% of cash in the economy almost overnight and naturally caused a liquidity crisis.
By the time Mr. Modi returned from Japan, the country was in chaos. In a mostly cash economy, people lined up at banks to withdraw cash and presumably deposit any of the old notes in their possession. Economic activity was disrupted, shops shuttered for lack of customers, weddings were canceled, and Indians were angry.
On Mr. Modi’s return from Japan, there was no mention of corruption — given the lines of ordinary middle class people at banks — instead it was now called a move to modernize India and turn it into a cashless economy. How in a poor country with high illiteracy remains a mystery. Economists now estimate the cost to the economy of Mr. Modi’s banknote initiative at roughly $15 billion or 1.5 percent of GDP.
The moral for Mr. Modi’s initiatives takes us all the way back to Aesop’s fable about the fox and the goat and the well, and its adage, ‘look before you leap’. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Modi’s current visage has taken on the appearance of a sage even if the facts do not support it.