A reinvention on track

The Planning Commission is deeply reflecting on its role.

Written by Mihir Shah | Published:October 10, 2011 12:24 am

Pratap Bhanu Mehta (‘Errors of Commission’,IE,October 6) provides a trenchant critique of the Planning Commission (PC). Mehta’s piece comes at a time when the PC is itself involved in a process of intense reflection on its role in a rapidly changing economy and society. Ironically,a lot of what Mehta believes should be role of the PC is precisely in line with what we have begun to do. And some of what he says is just factually incorrect.

I must begin by unequivocally stating that the BPL episode that triggered Mehta’s critique has actually led to a historic positive policy change. Individual entitlements and eligibility under government schemes will not anymore be linked to the poverty line,and will not be subject to arbitrary caps. This is the first Planning Commission to take such a step since caps were introduced about two decades ago. Our new approach is based on Amartya Sen’s “capabilities-opportunities” framework and on a fresh Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) on indicators of deprivation,which will help identify beneficiaries for various government programmes.

Yes,it is true that we must in general aim for universal benefits. This is what an increasing number of programmes are now doing. But there are cases (such as housing) where it would be an absolute waste of resources to provide government support to those already endowed. Accurate lists of those without adequate housing are,therefore,vital and form an important part of the SECC’s mandate. We must also face and tackle the danger that in our caste- and class-divided society,even in universal programmes,locally powerful elements can grab most benefits and deprive those without a voice. And,finally,there is what the Approach Paper to the 12th Plan calls the “U without Q” (universalisation without quality) syndrome — the challenge of ensuring that huge expenditures on programmes of social inclusion actually translate into benefits for the people for whom they are meant. This is not nay-saying fiscal policing (in Mehta’s terms) but it certainly means bringing expenditures within a framework of accountability. To this end,the PC is setting up an Independent Evaluation Office to provide continual feedback on the quality of our programmes and on how we can make them more effective.

Almost every one of the legitimate concerns voiced by Mehta constitutes the core of what distinguishes the 12th Plan Approach Paper from its predecessors,especially articulated in great detail in the chapter on governance. For instance,Mehta is rightly critical of the tendency towards “standardisation and homogenisation”. There is no doubt that some of the best work in India has happened as a result of innovations by state governments,who have broken the shackles of straitjacketing Central guidelines. In recognition of this,one of our key emphases is on promoting location-specific solutions,respecting the vast diversity of India. Each flagship programme is to be now provided with “flexi-funds” that would allow states to innovate with freedom.

We also emphasise subsidiarity,an organising principle which stipulates a central authority should have a subsidiary function,performing only those tasks which can’t be performed with greater effectiveness at a more immediate or local level. This is the spirit of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments but even 20 years on,progress in genuine devolution has been faltering and needs to be incentivised by the Centre in the support to states.

An example of the diversity across the country (rightly brought out by Mehta) is in institutions of governance and local empowerment. These are especially weak in the central Indian tribal belt,which has,therefore,proved particularly vulnerable to Maoism. The Approach Paper proposes a “plan within a plan” whereby in the first two years of the 12th Plan,funds will be provided to tribal blocks to facilitate capacity building of panchayats,improved implementation of flagship programmes and speedier action on tribal rights. Additional funds in the next three years will be provided to only those areas which show progress against these indicators. The Centre will not specify anything about what this money would be spent on,so long as the districts adhere to a decentralised,participatory process of formulating their plans.

Contrary to what Mehta says,the PC has been in the forefront of major recent innovations — flexibility in the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY),improving productivity of pulses,reforms in MGNREGA to reduce delays in payment and to make it a productivity-enhancing instrument,participatory approaches in ground-water management,a paradigm shift in large-scale irrigation,converging drinking water with sanitation,while removing the APL-BPL distinction and the emphasis on strengthening public health systems. Of course,for us the key to success of these reforms (partly already underway and partly in the pipeline) is that it is not the PC which should get the credit. The reforms should be entirely owned by the implementing Central ministries and state governments.

As India’s economy and society throw up fresh challenges,the PC too needs to change. This process of internal reform,which has been attempted ever since the current PC took office,seeks to create a better alignment between a new vision for the institution and its existing systems and human resources. Progress has,undeniably,been slow as deeply entrenched structures and processes take time and effort to move.

Nevertheless,there is greater clarity on the emerging role of the PC that I have tried to illustrate through a few examples. This is not a command-and-control role any more. The goal is to facilitate and incentivise reforms in the functioning of the public sector in its interface with the most deprived sections of our population,which ensure that funds allotted for government programmes are more effectively spent,bringing real benefits to the people for whom they are meant. This involves identification of states and civil society organisations that provide examples of best practices and devising ways and means of imaginatively mainstreaming these in a time-bound manner. It also requires a careful diagnostics of failure to draw the right lessons about how not to design programmes. The hardest part is to promote action across silos into which departmental work is often divided. Preparing for the 12th Plan,we have set up Working Groups,many of whom are headed by the best minds and practitioners in the country,from within but also,for the first time,from outside government.

This is not mere consultative tokenism. These are steps that could eventually make the Planning Commission a nimble-footed,“learning organisation” committed to building partnerships,while remaining engaged in a process of continuous self-transformation.

The writer is a member of the Planning Commission

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