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Making 'Un-Planning' Commission - Is it a Viable Proposition?

Atul K Thakur, Senior Associate Editor, INLCUSION

Photo Courtesy: www.oldindianphotos.in

Bibek Debroy’s piece in The Economic Times, mentioned an unheard term - ‘un-planning' -  while contesting the relevance of planning in India. This ‘un-planning’ commission, according to him, would be the replacement of the existing Planning Commission with a different nomenclature – However, he supplied no further details, about how this new institution would function.

Thus one could reckon that he too lacks information - if not the understanding - about the new think tank, in which he will probably have some major say. Debroy has been assessing governments since their early days – from UPA -I at the centre, JD (U) in Bihar, TMC in West Bengal and now to the new BJP government at the Centre. Nothing is really unusual about it.

But Indian polity is evidently in the midst of a tectonic shift, where the government is planning policy bereft of the fixed intellectual convictions of a select few, and the scheduled, fleeting cheers by related stakeholders. So, this process of ‘disillusionment’ is likely to stick amongst policy experts, who consistently spend their time and energy in channelising the interface between politics and economics – and that too in hope reciprocation from the power the seats of power.

In his piece, Debroy has articulated that the Planning Commission lost its shine soon after the 2nd Plan – even someone who is not a blind believer in the free-market - will not hold exception to this. Indeed it is true, Planning Commission turned sharply pro-Congress after the 2nd Plan and even more so in 1970’s. The aggressive control the it inadvertently had over the government and its functioning severely attacked its autonomy.

Hence, not only did the irrational annual plan discussions and the misuse of entitlements by the established cohort of cliques survive, they thrived. Moreover, what made matters worse for the Planning Commission were the falling standards of research inputs, relying too much on studies from questionable sources and being unable to competitively come to terms with the realities faced by the implementing ministries.

Somewhere along this process, the federal spirit suffered the most, and any exercise aimed at introspection disappeared from the central government. Although, now when the Planning Commission is supposed to be replaced with a new institution, which is predicted to possess a higher propensity to support the economic reforms – it would be worthwhile would be for the new government at the Centre to remember that 'planning', per se, cannot ever be irrelevant for any set of systems.

Hence, scrapping the institution merely for the sake of scrapping it hardly makes any sense.  What would be the best policy correction, however, is to restructure it in tandem with the requirements of the present and the future, and to ensure that the overhaul retrieves the transparency and the efficiency losses. The UPA-I&II miserably failed in even acknowledging the ills of the Planning Commission, let alone making any effort in improving its working.

That being said, the new government has a fair opportunity to make the improve the Planning Commission by introducing some much needed changes related to the states, funds allocations, and its internal working mechanism. But instead imbibing those changes, which would have made it accountable to the ‘federal spirit’ – the decision of simply removing it does not bode well beyond enthusing momentous cheers for ‘name change’ and letting the opportunity of a ‘spirit change’ pass.

It is intriguing that so far the new institution, as it stands proposed, is not supported by any important details within the public domain (although the speculative news stories of the leading dailies are making rounds and being proved wrong simultaneously). The Planning Commission was moulded to define our economic goals in post-independence India. Except in odd patches, all it did was try and align the political goals with the social and economic aspirations of a new India.

The intent behind making Planning Commission prominent was not mala fide and with an alarming increase in income disparities, which continues to grow – it would be of grave concern if an institution such as itself ceases to exist altogether.

Through all one may gather about the new institution through public sources – this one will differ in functioning with the existing secondary and tertiary national planning processes which were aimed at handling the plan process and funding between the finance ministry and various other ministries, and between the centre and the states.

Most likely, the new body will have no overseeing authority to evaluate the quality of programme implementation and hold consultations with the government to ideate on the same. So, contrary to generic criticism, the fact is that the Planning Commission, while having the right to mediate between the centre and the state, is notionally not against the federal structure of the country.

Wherever it faltered, the blame was erroneously attributed to its structure and it would have been much better if the practices under the aegis of the central government and other stakeholders had been brought under due scrutiny.

The level of performance varies and is influenced by many factors and if the new institution in the offing can set things right, there is no reason why the Planning Commission cannot be rebuilt. Simply pronouncing capital punishment for a few wrongs should not be confused with the idea of justice.

If the central government is really serious about strengthening the federal structure and empowering states – then it should first make space for wider consultations on crucial issues like this. Simply relying on new media and discussing a policy issue as serious as this in open forum could be seen as anything, but a practical step.

The concept of maximum governance is praiseworthy but only if it also optimizes the government, as the government has to continue playing its essential role.

In the past, we have seen the names of our metropolitan cities change in the pursuit of tempering significant historical realities and respecting legacies. By scrapping the Planning Commission in one go, it seems one more such mistake is going to be committed in India's policy spectrum.

(Atul K Thakur can be reached at atul@skoch.in)

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