The Old Order Changeth
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brainchild, the NITI Aayog, or the National Institution for Transforming India, faces intense scru- tiny from backers and critics alike. Change is never easy, especially when it involves a 64-year-old institution. Everything, from its set- ting up, its objectives and the stated aim to be as different as possible from the Planning Commission, its predecessor, is up for question.
The new body has been envisaged by the National Democratic Alli- ance (NDA) government as one that will be more inclusive in its ap- proach even as it acts with greater transparency in the spirit of feder- alism. What will set up apart from the Planning Commission, the government hopes, is its role of being a thinktank for development- oriented policy-making for the states and the Centre.
In the past, many state chief ministers have accused the Planning Commission of adopting an authoritarian approach while dealing with the state problems. On 1 Janurary 2015, Modi tweeted: “Through the NITI Aayog, we bid farewell to a one-size-fits-all ap- proach towards development. The body celebrates India’s diversity and plurality.” As a chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had always criticised the Planning Commission for playing the bully, while allocating funds.
To start with, the NITI Aayog has done away with the position of a secretary; instead, it will be run by a chief executive officer (CEO). Coincidentally, the job goes to the Planning Commission’s last member secretary Sindhushree Khullar. The body will have two full-time mem- bers — economist Bibek Debroy and former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief V.K. Saraswat — apart from four ex officio members (Union ministers) and three special invitees. While the body will be chaired by Modi, the appoint- ment of Arvind Panagariya, a free market economist, as its vice-chairman has invited a fair bit of criticism from those fearing the death of the welfare state. Manish Tewari, the former Union minister for infor- mation and broadcasting in the United Progressive Alli- ance (UPA) government, says: “India is still a country that requires state intervention. The government can- not just be a facilitator of and for corporates while making polices.”
He also criticises the government’s decision to transfer all fiscal powers to North Block (the finance ministry), adding that the constitution of the country does not allow for this kind of centralisation of powers. His criticism stems from the fact that the budget- making exercise has totally shifted to the finance minis- try this year. While the Planning Commission normally plays a role by way of recommending allocations for var- ious ministries, the government’s failure to re-constitute it in time brought on the shift. Ajay Chibber, former director general of the Inde- pendent Evaluation Office, associated with the Planning Commission, sounds a note of caution. He believes the NITI Aayog “is not too different from the Planning Commission — with permanent members, designated ministers and many of the old bureaucrats who have been retained — which is somewhat worrisome”.
High Hopes But there are many who believe that the new institution will make a difference. Sudha Pillai, who served as a member secretary of the Planning Commission, is optimistic. “The idea of a governing council comprising the chief ministers of all states will help in resolving many issues between the Centre and states.” She hastens to add that the new body should have a say in budget-mak- ing. “There should be some sort of consultation between the body and the finance ministry, while formulating the budget.” Amid the criticism and appreciation for the NITI Aayog, one thing stands out that Modi has killed a Nehruvian legacy; will he be successful in creating one of his own? Only time will tell.
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 09-02-2015)