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A focus on social sector and welfarism, highlighting the government’s move to restore Muslim women’s honour through the bill criminalising triple talaq, and pitching for simultaneous Lok Sabha and state assembly elections marked President Ram Nath Kovind‘s maiden address to the joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament on Monday, January 29.

This also a session that will see the last full budget to be presented in this term of the Narendra Modi government and, perhaps expectedly, the President’s speech, which is a reflection of the government’s priorities, was more about steps taken to improve the lives of the people rather than about economic growth and big projects and deals.

President Kovind started with the observation that Heads of States and Governments of ten ASEAN countries during this year’s Republic Day added a special dimension to India’s vision of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’.

He said 2018 would be a special year to realise the vision of New India before moving on to the main part of his speech.

Recalling the statement of the architect of the Constitution, Baba Saheb Dr BR Ambedkar, that political democracy cannot survive without social and economic democracy, the President said that the government, “guided by this fundamental spirit of the Constitution and committed to the welfare of weaker sections, is working towards strengthening social justice and economic democracy and to usher ease of living for the common man.”

Women:

Referring to the Swachchh Bharat mission and drive to construct toilets, he said, “Perhaps no one had imagined that construction of toilets could also contribute towards social justice. Construction of toilets not only protects their dignity but also fosters a feeling of social justice in women.”

“It is our collective responsibility to pay a befitting tribute to Pujya Bapu by making the country Swachh by 2019 when we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi,” he said. He mentioned ‘Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana’ as another major step towards improving the lot of women, saying over 3.30 crore cooking gas connections were provided under the scheme to rid the women of the ill effects of smoky kitchens on the health of women and their children.

The Triple Talaq Bill was also a step to emancipate the Muslim women who, said the President, would be able to “live a life of self-respect with courage” once the Bill was enacted. He expressed the hope that the Bill would soon be enacted.

Extending the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao‘ scheme from 161 districts to 640 districts and amending the Maternity Benefit Act to provide for 26 weeks of paid leave in place of 12 weeks were other steps for women’s welfare that the government has taken.

For further strengthening ‘economic democracy’, he said the government was moving towards “bridging the gap between the country’s banking system and the poor”.

“Under the ‘Jan Dhan Yojana’, so far, about 31 crore bank accounts have been opened for the poor. Women have especially benefitted from the scheme with the percentage of Savings Bank accounts held by them going up to more than 40 per cent from the earlier 28 per cent,” the President said.

On the issue of employment, the President said that to encourage self-employment, the government has facilitated provision of credit without insisting on bank guarantee. “Under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana’, about 10 crore loans have been sanctioned so far and more than Rs. 4 lakh crore worth of loans have been disbursed. About 3 crore first time beneficiaries have received assistance under this scheme for self employment,” he said.

“The endeavour of the Government towards strengthening economic and social democracy is helping redefine our national life. These efforts are establishing a new social order in the country which provides equal opportunity to the poor to march ahead,” he added.

Farmers found special mention. “The highest priority of my Government is to remove various difficulties faced by farmers and to raise their standard of living. The schemes of my Government are not only removing their hardships but also reducing the expenditure incurred by them on farming,” said the President.

He said, “As a result of Government’s policies and the hard work of farmers, a record production of more than 275 million tonnes of food grain and about 300 million tonnes of horticultural produce has been achieved in the country.”

He reiterated the government’s promise of “doubling of farmers’ income by 2022.”

“To ensure remunerative price to the farmers for their produce, the agriculture mandis are being connected online. So far, agricultural commodities valued at about Rs. 36 thousand crore have been traded on e-NAM portal,” he said.

“Government is also protecting the interests of farmers by giving production bonus on pulses and oil seeds. As a result of Government’s policy for pulses, their production went up by more than 38 per cent as compared to last year, which is a record.

“To prevent damage to agriculture produce before it reaches the market and to ensure its safe storage, “Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sampada Yojana” has been launched. The supply chain and infrastructure in the agricultural sector are being modernized under this scheme,” said President Kovind.

Further, he said, an ambitious scheme has been introduced in the Dairy sector under which a ‘Dairy Processing Infrastructure Development Fund’ with a corpus of Rs. 11 thousand crore is being set up to enhance the income of farmers.

He said the government is working to remove the feeling of economic insecurity among the poor, farmers and senior citizens.

To this end, under ‘Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana’, farmers are being provided affordable and simple crop insurance services and under Rabi & Kharif crops, 5 crore 71 lakh farmers were provided protective coverage under this scheme during 2017, he said.

The government has introduced insurance schemes for the poor at a premium of 1 rupee per month and 90 paise per day and more than 18 crore poor have been covered under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana’ and ‘Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana’, he said, adding that about Rs. 2 thousand crore has been paid out as claims.

The ‘Atal Pension Yojana’ has been brought for the social security of senior citizens and about 80 lakh senior citizens have benefitted by the scheme, he said.

The government is developing mechanisms to ensure that benefits of development reach the poorest of the poor, he said, adding, “About 2 lakh 70 thousand Common Service Centres have been set up that provide digital services at low cost, even in the remotest areas of the country. Under the ‘Bharat Net Project’, the Government is providing broadband connectivity to 2 lakh 50 thousand Gram Panchayats. In the first phase, more than one lakh Panchayats have already been connected. This project will play a major role in taking e-health, e-education, e-governance and e-commerce to each village of the country.”

Under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana’, more than 82 per cent villages mostly in far flung and inaccessible areas have been connected by roads, as compared to 2014 when only 56 per cent of the villages had road connectivity. “Our target is to provide road connectivity to every village by 2019,” he said.

The distribution of food grains at cheap rates under National Food Security Act is being made transparent and leakage proof in all States of the country.

At a time when several politically influential, socially dominant sections are pressing for reservation under PBC category, the government has also moved a Constitution Amendment Bill to provide Constitutional Status to the National Commission for Backward Classes. The President said it showed that the government is sensitive towards the aspirations of every section of society.

“A Commission has been constituted to examine the sub-categorization of backward classes so that the benefits of higher education and jobs can be availed by the most backward sections among the backward classes,” the President added.

For the welfare of tribals, the President listed government steps including Minimum Support Price of several forest produce collected by the tribal people, excluding bamboo from the category of tree, and Adivasi Swatantrata Sangram Sangrahalayas to honour the invaluable contribution of tribal communities in the independence struggle.

The President said that for the empowerment and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities, the government has enacted the ‘Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016’. Provision has been made for 4 per cent reservation in government jobs and 5 per cent reservation in higher education for them.

He said with regard to minorities, the government is committed to “Empowerment and not Appeasement” and is making intensive efforts for economic, social and educational empowerment of the minorities.

“Employment opportunities have been provided to the youth belonging to Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi and Jain communities through programmes, such as, ‘Seekho Aur Kamao’, ‘Usttad’, ‘Garib Nawaz Kaushal Vikas Yojana’, ‘Nai Roshni’ etc. More than 45 lakh students have also benefitted from scholarships, fellowships, skill development and coaching schemes during the last one year,” he said.

For housing, the government is targeting to provide a house with availability of water-electricity-toilet facility to every poor and homeless household by the year 2022 and over the last three and a half years, more than 93 lakh houses have been constructed by the Government in rural and urban areas, said President Kovind.

To alleviate the financial burden of treatment of disease further aggravates the suffering, the President said that the government has formulated a ‘National Health Policy’ for providing better and affordable healthcare facilities to the poor and middle class.

“Through the ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi’ Kendras, 800 different medicines are being made available to the poor people at affordable rates and more than 3 thousand such kendras have been established in the country. Under the ‘Deendayal Amrut Yojana’, over 5200 lifesaving branded medicines and surgical implants are being provided through 111 outlets at discounts ranging from 60 per cent to 90 per cent,” he said.

“In addition to medicines for heart patients, the cost of stent has been reduced up to 80 percent. The cost of knee implant has also been regulated. Under the ‘Pradhan Mantri National Dialysis Programme’, in over 500 districts, more than 22 lakh dialysis sessions for 2.25 lakh patients have been conducted at discounted rates,” the President said.

To enhance the availability of doctors, 7 thousand post graduate seats and over 13 thousand MBBS seats have been approved and the government has also introduced the ‘National Medical Commission Bill’ in the Lok Sabha to ensure quality and transparency in medical education.

Speaking about steps to address the problem of unemployment, the President talked about the measures and schemes taken to help self-employment. He mentioned programmes like Start Up India, Stand Up India, Skill India Mission, Mudra Yojana to provide self-employment to the youth and two schemes – ‘SANKALP’ and ‘STRIVE’ for skill development of youth in line with the needs of the industry.

“Enterprises or companies creating new employment opportunities are being provided financial assistance under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Rojgar Protsahan Yojana’. Over 20 lakh people have benefited under this scheme. About 5 lakh youth have benefitted under the ‘National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme’,” President Kovind said.

To promote sports, the President said International Sports Competitions like FIFA Under-17 World Cup and Asian Athletic Championship were organised, an ambitious campaign namely ‘Khelo India Programme’ with an outlay of over Rs. 1750 crore has been started. A ‘Sports Talent Search Portal’ has been started for transparent selection of talented sportspersons and a scheme has been launched to provide stipend of Rs. 6 lakh per annum to one thousand talented sportspersons.

The President noted the achievements in India’s space programme, spoke of the Digital India Mission, steps for development and modernisation of Railways, the Bharatmala programme for highways, and ‘Jalmarg Vikas Pariyojana’ for waterways.

To provide air connectivity to smaller cities and to enable the lower middle class, middle class and young people to fly, “Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik” or ‘UDAN’ scheme has been launched, he added.

In power generation, the President said that for the first time, increase in Power generation capacity in the country has exceeded the target and India has become a net exporter of power.

He said the mission to save electricity and efforts to increase electricity production are moving hand in hand and “in last three years, solar energy generation has increased by seven times.”

“Owing to Indian efforts, the International Solar Alliance has now become a legal entity,” he said, “its headquarter has been set up in India.”

The President also spoke about India’s successes in foreign affairs and winning international recognition, its achievement in sustaining high economic growth rate, GST, the efforts to re-capitalise the public sector banks, the fight against corruption and the improvement in Ease of Doing Business ranking.

Towards the end, the President came to Modi government’s preference for having simultaneous Lok Sabha and state assembly elections to say, “Citizens alive to the state of governance in the country are concerned about the frequent elections in one part of the country or another, which adversely impact the economy and development. Frequent elections not only impose a huge burden on human resources but also impede the development process due to the promulgation of the model code of conduct. Therefore, a sustained debate is required on the subject of simultaneous elections and all political parties need to arrive at a consensus on this issue.”

He concluded with a call to work for nation building to strengthen the foundation of New India by 2022, when the Nation celebrates the 75th year of Independence.

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