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NITI Aayog best placed to usher in participatory planning

Gyanendra Keshri, Executive Editor, INCLUSION

Narendra Modi government has replaced 65-year old Planning Commission (Yojana Aayog) with a new institution named NITI Aayog. NITI stands for National Institution for Transforming India. 

To bring in a lasting transformation, radical change in the process of planning and implementation of developmental work is required. Plans should be formulated at local bodies and village level on felt-need based approach.

As per a resolution approved by the Union Cabinet for setting up the new entity, an important evolutionary change from the past will be “replacing a centre-to-state one-way flow of policy by a genuine and continuing partnership with the states.” The institution must have the necessary resources, knowledge, skills and, ability to act with speed to provide the strategic policy vision for the government as well as deal with contingent issues.

The idea is to have a “Bharatiya approach” to development. The new institution has to zero in on what will work in and for India.

What is Bharatiya approach to development? Mahatma Gandhi had called for Village Swaraj. His development discourse hinged on a village-based participatory democracy. Gandhiji had called for complete decentralisation. Although, the government often evokes Gandhiji’s name in social welfare schemes and programmes, a true focus on decentralisation has been lacking.

The Planning Commission was set up in 1950 and had a socialist style of functioning. A handful of bureaucrats and technocrats sitting at Yojana Bhawan in the national capital used to decide on what developmental works should be undertaken. They used to impose five-year plans, allocate resources and set economic targets. Cosmetic changes were made in the functioning of the Commission from time-to-time, new bodies including the ministries like the Ministry of Panchayati Raj was set up in the name of decentralisation, but the real problem remained unresolved.

Highlighting the need for scrapping the Planning Commission, Modi had said in his first Independence Day address to the nation: “Sometimes, it becomes necessary to repair a house. It costs a lot of money but it does not give us satisfaction. Then, we feel it is better to make a new house. We will very soon set up a new institution in place of the Planning Commission.”

Although, organisational framework of the new body looks similar to the old one with Vice-Chairperson, CEO and full-time and part-time members – all directly answerable to the prime minister, the key difference lies in the functioning.

The new body won’t have any discretionary power of allocation of funds to states. It will work as a think-tank on the spirit of “cooperative federalism.”

At the top there will be a Governing Council, comprising of chief ministers and lieutenant governors of Union Territories (UTs), that will frame national development priorities. The new body will also have Regional Council that will address specific issues and contingencies impacting more than one state of a region. The Regional Councils will be formed for specified tenures and will be convened by the prime minister. It will comprise of chief ministers of states and lieutenant governors of UTs in the region.

In the new structure, even though, the states seem to be getting a respectable say a lot more emphasis need to be put on getting villages and local bodies on board. Federalism can not stop at the states and has to go down to the third tier of governance. The approach to development should be felt-need based. For example, if there are pit holes on roads in a particular area, the local body of that area understands the need for its repair the best. Bureaucrats or technocrats sitting in a swanky office in the national capital, may be thousands of kilometer way, cannot realise the importance of repair of the road. The local people who commute through the road daily feel the pinch. They are in the best position to plan and implement the work and they should have the final say in such activities.

Technology can play a key role in plugging the loopholes and ensure proper monitoring of such works. Under Digital India initiative, the government has already set a target to connect villages through broadband. NITI Aayog should leverage the modern technology to ensure villages and local bodies participation in the decision-making. 

(Gyanendra Keshri can be reached at gyanendra@skoch.in)

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