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India-Planning Commission-NITI Aayog
AP Photo/Ajit Solanki
Time is up for Nehru’s planning powerhouse.

Why Nehru’s Planning Commission didn’t fail India—but Modi’s Niti Aayog might

Syeda Hameed
By Syeda Hameed

Former member of Planning Commission

Taking down one sign and putting up another; curtains down for Yojana Ayog, curtains up for NITI Aayog; a new era of planning has begun in post Nehruvian India.

The Planning Commission has become an easy target for writers and columnists ever since it was shot down by the highest authority. Terms like Nehruvian anachronism, antediluvian creation, relic of the Soviet project have been bandied about.

But aren’t they a bit too harsh—and too hasty in discarding the Planning Commission?

Why the Planning Commission mattered

As a member of Planning Commission for two terms (10 years), I have witnessed how we changed ourselves in the decade between 2004 and 2014. We became a dynamic institution with healthy tensions, checks and balances, and public accountability.

Planning was brought out of the cloister of Yojana Bhawan and into the public domain.

We avoided foisting our will and tried a calibrated strategy.

I have been an eyewitness to how the commission tried to hold central ministries accountable for delivering on the plan promises. Half-yearly reviews and quarterly reviews were called for to determine what distance had been covered towards the defined goalposts.

Two significant changes were made in the last decade: First, taking the people on board from the very inception of planning; and second, loosening the rigidity of centrally-sponsored schemes (CSS) to accommodate different aspirations. This is because very early we were told by our chairperson—the prime minister—that one size does not fit all.

Policies had to be tailored to address the fact that given India’s diversity and geography, different states would be at different stages of development. At annual plan discussions, states were urged to indicate what changes to CSS would address their special needs.

We avoided foisting our will and tried a calibrated strategy because our mandate was to be an essay in persuasion, not a conformity enforcer. Some states cooperated, some resisted. Some resistance was, by definition, political posturing.

New year, new acronym

Despite all these changes and achievements, the new government of India announced the end of Planning Commission on August 15, 2014, barely three months after it took office.

India-Planning-Commission
Photo division, Government of India
A meeting of the Advisory Board of the Planning Commission in 1951

Four months later, a new entity was formally announced with a new acronym. It’s structure was defined in the cabinet note, which has been extensively commented in the last three days. The prime minister would be the chairperson, and he would appoint a vice-chairperson.

In addition, there would be ex-officio, full-time and part-time members and a chief executive office to handle the administration.

The new architecture is planned to ensure the participation of states in the planning process and to affect “bottom up” instead of “top down” planning. It is, therefore, decided that all chief ministers of states will be members of NITI Aayog.

As a result, planning will be done by the entire National Development Council, the highest decision making body of the country.

The fine print

My apprehension is the impossibility of such a a large, unwieldy and excessively preoccupied body being tasked with planning for the country.

Planning may become a paper exercise with no connect to the ground reality.

How many meetings of this body will be held in the year?

How many chief ministers, given their excessive workload, will attend to their duties as planners?

Will the decisions then be thrown back to the lap of officials who are known for status quo ante, business as usual?

In three months, it will be the third year of the 12th Plan. Will NITI Aayog take stock of its progress—or, will the task be relegated to officials who may present report after report and basically report nothing?

My fear is that given the penchant of politicians, planning may become a paper exercise with no connect to the ground reality.

Instruments like the Results Framework Document were devised to keep track and enforce accountability. But at the Planning Commission, actual track was kept by putting feet on the ground and trudging to the remotest hamlets of the country to find out how people were faring. The culture of field visits was enforced. Officials were asked to move out of the bhavans to where people were. But none of that was commented upon when it was called a Nehruvian anachronism.

In time we may discover that the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater.

The year 2017 is the end of the 12th Plan and start of 13th Plan; between now and then, only time will be the arbiter.

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