New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Thursday told his 77-member council of ministers at its first meeting since Sunday’s reshuffle that infrastructure development and overcoming hurdles that slow down investment should be areas of focus.
At the 30-minute meeting held at the Prime Minister’s House – 7 Race Course Road – Manmohan Singh also flagged fiscal deficit as a matter of concern. He said the deficit is too high, and could deter domestic and foreign investment.
“One area that is at the top of our agenda and will require particular attention and effort at multiple levels across government is infrastructure,” Singh said, in his opening remarks.
The government, he said, had set itself a target of $1 trillion investments in the infrastructure sectors during the 12th plan period from 2012-17.
“To do so, we will have to overcome the constraints that currently deter or slow down this investment,” he noted.
This was the first such meeting held by the prime minister since the United Progressive Alliance returned to power in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
The meeting assumes significance as only one-and-half years of the UPA government’s tenure is left, ahead of the 2014 general elections.
Listing fuel supply arrangements, security and environmental clearances and financing difficulties to be among the constraints, the prime minister said the growing gap between demand and supply of energy has emerged as a major brake on development.
“It is a major factor in widening the deficit on current account of our balance of payments as well as the fiscal deficit. It is imperative that we come to a common understanding on these issues and work out mechanisms and remedial measures that will enable us to tackle these critical deficiencies on a priority basis,” Singh said.
Recalling the work done by the UPA government in the last nine years, including the Aadhaar, rural employment guarantee and urban renewal schemes, the prime minister said the country has enjoyed sustained and robust economic growth most of these years, which in turn made social sector spending possible.
“While we should take justifiable pride in our successes, it is important to recognise that we are now also experiencing the fallout of difficult economic conditions worldwide. As a result, our growth has decelerated, our exports have fallen and our fiscal deficits are expanding.”
“Of particular concern is the fiscal deficit, which is too high and acts as a deterrent for domestic and foreign investment. These issues have a rippling effect across the economy and on the work of many departments,” the prime minister said.
Singh said he had asked Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to share an assessment of the economic situation with the council of ministers in order to have a clearer appreciation of the macro-economic picture that the nation is faced with.
“My own view is that while we need not be unduly gloomy about our prospects, we certainly need to redouble our resolve to meet the challenges before us and rise to the task of governance,” the world renowned economist said.
Expressing his “firm belief” that “the future holds great promise for India”, Singh said the government targets could be achieved, provided the task is approached “with courage and with conviction”.
“I am aware that we are working against the political calendar, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we are also involved in the task of nation-building. Our responsibilities and our commitment therefore need to transcend other considerations,” he said, an obvious reference to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
“I have no doubt that, in the time that is available to us, each one of you will bring your best efforts to complete the unfinished task before us and extend your support to all our colleagues across government in achieving the objectives we have set for ourselves,” Singh said.
In addition, the prime minister also requested senior cabinet colleagues to make full use of the capacities and capabilities of the “number of energetic and younger colleagues” who had joined the council of ministers as ministers of state “by assigning them substantive tasks.”
Soon afterwards, the 32-member cabinet met separately under Singh’s chairmanship.