As speculation mounts by the day that the Modi government is thinking of winding up the Planning Commission, this is an opportune moment to reflect on the relevance of the institution in the context of a rapidly changing Indian economy and society.
One way of classifying institutions is in terms of the balance between their potential positive power (PPP) and potential negative power (PNP). Potential positive power may be broadly understood to mean the capacity and power to enforce or facilitate positive change that would hasten the achievement of national goals. Potential negative power, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or power to obstruct, delay or derail positive reform, in cases where such reform threatens entrenched vested interests, status quo or business as usual. The exercise of PNP is often a ruse to foster corrupt practices, but it can also be an exercise of wanton power for its own sake, reflecting a perverse sense of power-induced pleasure.
The two institutions with perhaps the highest quotient of both PPP and PNP in the government of India are the Planning Commission and the ministry of finance. In my five years in the Planning Commission, I saw many instances of PNP and how this became a source of great resentment against the Planning Commission, both among state governments and Central ministries. Of course, at times, the Planning Commission acted with sagacity in checking profligacy of funds and schemes. But there were many cases where in-principle approvals, investment clearances, grants-in-aid and other decisions appeared to smack of bureaucratic red tape more than an application of mind motivated by the broader national interest and effectiveness of functioning. There were also visible vestiges of the old Stalinist command and control, inspector raj mindset.
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But it is also true that in these five years I saw innumerable instances of the exercise of positive power. I believe there are at least five broad areas in which the Planning Commission played an extremely positive role: one, pioneering an inclusive planning process; two, facilitating and mainstreaming reform, especially emphasising the principle of subsidiarity, recognising the deep diversity of India; three, co-ordinating across, if not breaking down silos; four, being the spokesperson of the states at the Centre; and five, arbitrating disputes by taking a more long-term and holistic view of issues.
The 12th Plan process saw a completely unprecedented architecture of plan formulation. For the first time in the history of the Planning Commission, the 12 working groups on water, rural development and panchayati raj were chaired by eminent experts from outside government and included the best minds and practitioners from across Central and state governments, academia, research institutions, industry, civil society, and panchayati raj institutions. It was clearly recognised that all wisdom does not reside within government and that the best plans, programmes and policies could be made only with the active involvement of those outside government. This was not mere tokenism in the name of participation. Final decisions were made by these inclusive working groups. For me, the true indicator of the success of this process was that even though none of the players involved were fully happy with the final outcome, something truly pathbreaking was achieved. This only reflected the spirit of compromise that is a hallmark of good governance, as a hard-fought consensus was thrashed out among the members and the chair and co-chair, who was in each case the seniormost official of the concerned department.
The result was a series of landmark proposals that constitute a paradigm shift in water management in India, including the first-ever National Aquifer Management Programme, a new approach to incentivise de-bureaucratisation of large irrigation projects and irrigation management transfer to increase water use efficiency, a new integrated approach to rural drinking water and sanitation, a proposal to regularly audit the industrial water footprint, a new approach to flood management, a scheme to empower gram panchayats, a radically reformed MGNREGA, etc, each of which drew upon best practices pioneered by the states, who have always led the reform process in our country.
At the request of the chief minister of Punjab, I chaired a high-level expert group on waterlogging in Punjab. The group, consisting of the nation’s best experts on the subject, conducted a thorough investigation of the problem in close partnership with the state government and came out with a package of solutions, which was generously supported by the government of India. When the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh went on a fast, raising a series of legitimate grievances of the state with the Centre, the prime minister asked me, as member in-charge of Madhya Pradesh, to work with all concerned Central ministries to hammer out an amicable solution, which was done in record time, to the satisfaction of the aggrieved CM. Similar roles were played by other members in other contexts, which illustrate how the PC can be an effective mediator and problem-solver for states, rather than their tormentor.
My aim in the Planning Commission was to be a support available 24×7 to dynamic officers in the states to showcase their best practices and help mainstream these across the length and breadth of the country. I attempted to do this with the Jyotigram separation of power feeders scheme in Gujarat, the participatory irrigation reforms of Andhra Pradesh, the water regulator of Maharashtra and many others. My hope is that whatever the Modi government decides will only give greater strength and momentum to this positive role of the Planning Commission, in whatever shape and form.
The writer was member, Planning Commission from 2009-14