At a meeting between the prime minister and chief ministers on Sunday, preparations will begin to restructure the Planning Commission. Quite fittingly, since chief ministers cordially dislike the commission. Though coalition politics has strengthened federalism, the clout of the states in the planning process has not risen correspondingly. However, there are fears that the commission will simply be whittled down to overseeing the direct transfer of benefits, the administration of unique IDs and so on, whereas the challenge is to reimagine the function of planning and make it relevant to a dynamically growing country, rather than the command economy which the Planning Commission was originally designed to oversee.
There are excellent reasons for allowing states more freedom to chart their own futures instead of imposing plans, targets and budget lines top-down. For instance, drought-prone states and mountain states have almost nothing in common. But there is a need for a nodal agency to weave these state-level threads together into a unified narrative, as well as to iron out the fabric of policies that result from the process. Besides, a professional agency is required for the basic exercise of setting targets. In its absence, targets could become political goals untrammelled by the limitations of reality, no better than poll promises.
The Planning Commission is out of time, in both senses of the term. For instance, while accountability has become an intrinsic good, it is neither answerable to Parliament — except to the extent of having to table Plan papers — nor does it connect directly with the people. Originally an honest broker between the Centre and the states, its power to mediate and forge a consensus on policies has flagged over the last decade. It has floundered in its attempts to set a credible poverty line. While theoretically sound, they have often been politically absurd, triggering controversies which eroded its image. And finally, it is perceived as a comfortable parking bay for favourites of the party in office. Planning will remain a serious function of government, but it requires a professional agency which appreciates and responds to India’s developing needs.