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'Planning Commission Needed To Perform New Functions To Fit New Millennium Economy'

Arun Maira, who was a member of the last 5 year term of the Planning Commission discusses how the commission had undertaken a process of transformation

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In 2014, the 65 year old Planning Commission was dismantled and replaced by NITI Aayog. As we approach the two year anniversary of NITI Aayog, Mr. Arun Maira, who was a member of the last 5 year term of the Planning Commission discusses how the commission had undertaken a process of transformation.

What was your role in the Planning Commission when you joined?

I joined in July 2009, and aside from my regular work as a permanent member of the commission I was also brought in as a change management expert to begin a process of transformation. Very early into my tenure we began to have discussion around how we needed to re-think the role of the commission that was over 60 years old. Both the then Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh and Deputy Chairman Dr. Montek Ahluwalia supported the idea. There was an acceptance that the commission was out of synch with the way in which the economy had changed. It had become ossified. Every institution should serve a public purpose and the Commission, a mammoth, had begun to serve itself.

There were many internal debates on what a new or reformed commission might look like. We were asking questions around why we needed to change and what we would change to. Should we be re-forming or new forming? Should we be radically different or take what exists and change it into something else. All this within the first year of my tenure.

What was the resistance to change?
There was resistance to radical change. Changing anything in a large government system is complex and slow. The Planning Commission (PC) is embedded in a large government system. One part can't be changed into something so different that it is not any longer in synch with the rest of government. Also, people resist change. Therefore often the best way to bring about change is not to tear down structures but to get people to do things differently.

However, some others said incremental changes won't work, we were changing too slowly and the gap between who we are and what we needed to be was ever increasing. The final approach was a reconciliation of the two ways. Don't change the core of the PC - let's add on new functions and get new people to do these functions. 'PC plus' is what we called this approach and we set out to create the plus. The plus would begin performing new urgently needed functions, and it would be pilot for change to the rest.

The PC needed to perform new functions to fit India's new millennium economy. The first of these new functions was to provide a radar to all the actors in the political economy. Imagine every stakeholder in our society, the private sector, the states, and civil society each of them trying to fly a plane, each concerned about the journey ahead. We would provide them strategic guidance and different scenarios on weather, on expected turbulence, on reaching their destination in a timely manner so that they could direct their planes accordingly.

Second, we would build platforms and process, convene forums - a consensus building process to bring various stakeholders into alignment on things they must do together. Not top down by instruction but by participation to bring about changes in the behaviours of private sector, the states and other actors to ensure that the flotilla was moving in the same direction.

Dr. Manmohan Singh coined two phrases around what we needed to become when he commissioned us on journey of change;
"What we need is a systems reform commission not a budget making organisation."
"We must be an essay in persuasion and not a writer of long plans."

There was a perception that the PC was imperious in dealing with the states that state shad to beg for their own money something that ultimately led to the PCs demise when a former Chief Minister became the PM?

The relations between the PC and states were part of the ossified culture of the commission from a past era. Every state had to get its annual plan approved by the commission. This involved setting up 28 meetings, one for each state. Before the meetings the states would bring 30-40 officers to camp out in Delhi for a week, to go to counterparts in the Planning Commission and convince them to accept their plan. The aim was to get the plan passed. It was a top down one sided approach. The Chief Minister and his team would sit on one side, and the PC on the other side with the PC telling them what they had gotten wrong. Then a ceremonious exercise would be held with the Chief Minister of each state to top up the annual plan with some money for them, usually very small amounts 10-20 crore. Some Chief Ministers were irked at this charade; almost being treated like 'beggars'. One said, "why do I have to come to the Planning Commission to be told how to spend my own money".

Some spoke of lack of competence in the PC. They were running their own state and wanted guidance but got nothing from people who did not know how to run a state. Some never came as they saw it as a bureaucratic process. Some got into the mode of disengagement. A major complaint was that the PC never heard the states but rather the states were made to hear the PC. The states were not learning from each other in this top down process.

How did you interpret this feedback in your change process?
We understood that it was essential to change this culture. We started some learning platforms for the states on different subjects, got the states involved. They were aware that the thinking in the PC was changing, they knew about the PC plus. Two or three of the larger states took the initiative to think about how a planning body in the state engages with a political system of the state and bureaucracy of the state, and on key issues of health education, infrastructure. The platforms would be supported by a knowledge base of whatever we were learning from the states and into which relevant knowledge from other countries could be put. Three state level meetings were held in this new format of PC plus.

A lot of this is sounding a lot like the charter of NITI Aayog?

The seeds of change were sown by the last PC. We also introduced scenario planning and systems change approaches to perform the 'radar' function expected of the PC. Some of this is mentioned in the opening chapters of the 12th plan. Of course dull and long plan documents are barely read and do not capture the public imagination, so these seeds of change were not widely noted!

What would you say was your main accomplishment over the five years?
Seeding change. What the functions of a new formed or reformed PC should be. Also a new approach to industrial policy, to reform government systems to make it easier for entrepreneurs to perform, rather than top down planning of industrial sectors. Also the approach to urbanization, to pay much more attention to smaller towns and not only metros, and to improve governance of towns, and to put people, the 4th central P, into city development in People-Public-Private Partnership processes.

Does the charter of NITI Aayog reflect the change management process begun under your tenure?
Yes it does.

What in your view are the greatest challenges to achieving the NITI Aayog charter?

The charter of the NITI Aayog is a new bottle, very different in shape to the PC. However putting old wine in the new bottle will not change what the country gets. The orientation of NITI's leaders must change faster to the new role expected of them, and they need new skills of facilitation of system reforms, and new modes of communication with the public to explain changes required in the political economy in non-technical terms, and enthuse them with a vision which is not merely a set of numbers about economic growth.

Do you have any regrets?

None. I understood my country from a perspective I could not have otherwise, and I got to meet hundreds of people from many walks of life who are trying to improve conditions in the country that I would not have met. I learned a great deal. It has humbled me and strengthened me too.

(This article is part of a three part series on transforming institutions: From the Planning Commission and NITI Aayog)

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