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Monday, May 23, 2022

Errors of commission

Is the Planning Commission out of touch with the governance needs of the 21st century?

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
October 6, 2011 3:29:13 am

The Planning Commission is not an institution. It is a syndrome. It,often unconsciously,operates on assumptions that no longer have much plausibility. It has lost much of its credibility as an interlocutor in India’s debates. During the recent controversy over the poverty line,the commission was often accused of being “out of touch”. Much of the discussion focused on the poverty line,and the uses to which it should or should not be put. But it is also clear that the Planning Commission has ended up in a cul-de-sac because its institutional mission is incompatible with the governance requirements of the 21st century.

The Planning Commission has gifted individuals. There is no reason to doubt their commitment to India’s growth prospects and the well-being of the poor. But we need to ask: why has it lost authority? Part of the answer may require excavating a whole range of illusions it has fallen prey to. The Planning Commission has long been a victim of its own name. It has this illusion that it can neatly order India’s economy. It does so,but often as a kind of conjuring trick,where real credible objectives disappear under a set of entrenched assumptions.

First,the commission exhibits great confusion over ends and means. The Planning Commission’s goal should have been to end poverty. It needed to work backwards from that end to ask the question: what instruments are necessary? Instead it picked on a bizarre intellectual construction,the poverty caps,and defended those with the zeal of a politburo. So you got a strategy where a commission told you how many poor you could have,independently of the means of identifying them. Instead of focusing on the objective,it made holding a line its raison d’etre. The illusion of targeting became more important than the achievement of objectives.

The Planning Commission arrogated to itself the role of a quasi-ombudsman,whose job became “just say no”. It is difficult to find any major innovative social sector scheme — whether it is food,health,employment or education — whose intellectual origins were in the Planning Commission. Instead of taking the lead on how socially desirable objectives could be met,its entire approach was to act as a kind of fiscal police. As a result,it completely ceded the initiative in the social sector space to other actors and now does not have a leg to stand on.

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The commission does not plan. It creates the illusion of planning. Planning ought to be future-oriented. The Planning Commission ought to be a space to think at least a decade or so ahead. But in almost every field the commission has touched,it ends up bringing a strangely pinched-up imagination to planning. Ever wonder why our infrastructure always looks like it was based on yesterday’s realities,rather than future needs? Somewhere,in the explanation,the Planning Commission’s penny-wise,pound-foolish conception of its role will figure prominently. But the other issue with planning is this: we often confuse plans with a statement of objectives. A plan not only requires a destination,but all the series of steps that will get you there. These steps have to be embedded in a range of ground realities from finance to administrative capability. The commission’s abilities to internalise these ground realities in the steps it proposes have become even shakier.

The commission’s penchant for standardisation extends to its own proposals. Take,for example,its current obsession with public-private partnerships. These are worthy instruments. But there are huge questions about sectors in which these should be applied,and the terms that define a good PPP. But the Planning Commission now has an unenviable track record of indiscriminately advocating them in areas where there is less compelling justification for them,and on insisting on standard models for these. Again,rather than work backwards from an objective to an instrument,the commission seizes on an instrument as a fad.

The commission,as the late economist Amaresh Bagchi used to remind us,is a big detriment to the development of states. It narrows the space of state governments to set priorities on expenditure. It is pre-empting more resources. It has an in-built bias towards standardisation and homogenisation. India is now a diverse and fast-moving economic space. Planning that does not have flexibility or responsiveness to local conditions is designed to fail. But it is bizarre to think that we can have supple planning without giving more autonomy to states,cities and local governments. Yet,the Planning Commission,in the end,peddles the illusion that without its omniscient choices and conditionalities,anarchy would ensue in the states. Nothing is farther from the truth.

The commission mistakenly believes that inclusive consultation can be a substitute for inclusive governance. It is has to be said,the commission’s consultative reach has become truly impressive. But institutionally this consultation produces odd outcomes. For,on the one hand,it allows the commission to check every box. Most approach papers have all the bases covered. You can never accuse the commission of not discharging its responsibilities. It can point to the right phrase as evidence. But on the other hand,this inclusive approach makes the central goal of planning obscure. Planning is not simply about stating all the good things you want. It is about explaining the hard choices that need to be made. These are often implicit in the financial allocations the commission makes. But these financial allocations often bear little relationship to the overall strategic direction.

Admittedly,the commission has a difficult task. It is now located amidst a thicket of actors. The prime minister has very little authority to throw his strategic weight behind the commission. The task of aggregating diverse views into a plan is not easy. To the commission’s credit,it is engaging in a lot of self-examination and trying to be more experimental. Plans are required. But the commission is still not reconciled to the fact that the very scale at which it plans militates against innovation. And by not giving ministries,state government,local governments enough space or ownership,it dooms proposals to failure.

The commission has taken a dazzling array of talent and sucked them into this illusory world of its own making. Thought leaders who should have been at the cutting edge of thinking about growth,or a new welfare architecture,or new data,have now become the object of easy scorn. They may not be personally out of touch. But the institution they serve is ill-fitted for the times we live in.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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