Concept and plan

A debate on the role of Niti Aayog may be in order. One characteristic of the Planning Commission that it replaced was the commission's role as an instrument of political economy in controlling resource allocations to Indian states. Between 2004 and 2014 resource allocation had become the commissions's all-encompassing job.

By Sumit K. Majumdar
  • Published 29.06.17
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A debate on the role of Niti Aayog may be in order. One characteristic of the Planning Commission that it replaced was the commission's role as an instrument of political economy in controlling resource allocations to Indian states. Between 2004 and 2014 resource allocation had become the commissions's all-encompassing job.

Planning in India is a hundred years old, with the 1918 Indian Industrial Commission report representing the defining moment. Pre-1947 attempts included works by M. Visvesvaraya and Jawaharlal Nehru's national planning committee of the Congress and Ardeshir Dalal's Bombay Plan.

In 1944, Edward Penderel Moon, a former Indian Civil Services officer, formulated an economic theory for India's development. The Planning Commission was established in 1950, after there had been substantial indigenous development of the ideas for India's progress. Nehru said: "We are trying to catch up, as far as we can, with the Industrial Revolution that occurred long ago in Western countries."

The Planning Commission translated into reality Nehru's vision for modern India. This was achieved by Moon, who remained in India till 1961 as Adviser (Planning) in the commission. Moon's inputs were fundamental to the first and second five-year plans, the two best plans ever formulated.

The commission's main role was perspective planning, in which P. C. Mahalanobis and Pitambar Pant were guide and help. The detailed development of the perspectives of Visvesvaraya,the NPC, Dalal and Moon in the hands of Mahalanobis as Planning Commission member led to the formulation of frameworks to guide policymaking. These in turn helped evolve administrative processes to guide the work of ministries.

Later, the commission's perspective planning role was trivialized. It became an instrument of political economy. From the early 1960s, plan documents were mega-budgets, with no conceptual underpinning. According to I.G. Patel, "the Plan was... a statement of the intentions for public expenditure so that implementation was... seen... through... budgets. The rest ...was... rhetorical."

Niti Aayog is not a perspective planning agency. Neither is it a political economy instrument. It has adopted a mimetic strategy, to copy what a variety of Western think tanks do, randomly cobbling together relatively disparate notions and issuing uncoordinated edicts as evidence of thought leadership. There is no thematic symmetry in content, and these outputs are 'unplanned'. They have no conceptual, legal or political basis which could define the work of the relevant ministries. This unplanned approach flows from the lack of an overarching theme that defines Niti Aayog. It is tasked with attaining a variety of policy and administrative objectives, but the absence of a bigger, aspirational goal renders its existence moot.

It tries to develop draft legislations, and takes on a large, technical role in articulating and anticipating the future minutiae of administrative and operational processes necessary in the implementation of planned development. But in the task of generating thought leadership it is a failure.

The head of government now is someone with a vision of India's glory and world role. Where Niti Aayog fails is in its translation of that vision. The development of concept formulations, which could aid policy-making in the various ministries, is compromised. Ideas that Niti Aayog should become an implementation agency are misplaced. It should be a thought leadership body.

But for this it has to be able to translate a leader's vision, and to engage in processes of conceptual formulation to guide policies. Until the core principles of strategic thought development, that is, vision translated into formulation, are adhered to, Niti Aayog will remain ineffective.