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It might be the end of the road for the Planning Commission. Despite having been in power for more than a month, the BJP government has chosen not to appoint new members to the commission, a decision viewed as portentous. The political consensus appears to be that the Planning Commission is now a zombie — well past its natural life and surviving only as a nuisance.
The Planning Commission began its career in March 1950. Its mandate was to study the economy, allocate resources between sectors and states, and chart the course for long-term economic development. It was the culmination of efforts by Indian nationalists to institute a planning body at the heart of government. In 1938, the Indian National Congress had established the national planning committee. By 1944, the British Indian government had its own planning and development department. There was also a profusion of “paper plans” — S. N. Agarwal’s Gandhian Plan, M.N. Roy’s People’s Plan and even one drawn up by India’s leading industrialists, dubbed the Bombay Plan. Planning was seen as deliverance, and India was primed for planning.
The Planning Commission grew into a power centre within independent India’s government. Its prestige owed much to the significance Nehru attached to its work. During these years, it became the institutional face of the Indian development story, at home and abroad. Not satisfied with authoring the economic agenda, the commission believed that the idea of planning had to win popular support. Along with other arms of government, it embarked on nationwide “plan-publicity” campaigns to stoke enthusiasm for planning. The aim, in celebrating “Plan Day” and “Plan Week”, was to make all Indians “plan-conscious” participants in the project of national advancement.
During the commission’s halcyon years, Yojana Bhawan, its headquarters in central Delhi, attracted economists from near and far. India’s situation as a poor, newly sovereign country that had fused democracy and planning made it a laboratory for testing the theories and techniques of development economics, a field then in its infancy. India’s policy of non-alignment found expression in the commission’s openness to conversing with economists from both sides of the Iron Curtain. India wasn’t just a recipient of expertise from abroad. Its successes in the 1950s, especially in industrial production, drew the attention of developing nations such as Ghana, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Indonesia. In addition to soliciting experts from India, these countries sent teams to examine the work of the Planning Commission in the fields of science and technology, industry and community development.
The questions raised today about the Planning Commission’s remit echo an infamous episode in its history. In the summer of 1950, the continued…