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Saturday, May 08, 2021

How the Planning Commission drove change in the India it inherited

An insider’s account of the planning processes of the past could show the road ahead on farm laws

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh |
Updated: April 10, 2021 8:59:54 am
Niti Aayog (File photo)

What are the big events and trends in the last half century that we must recollect as the nation celebrates the 75th anniversary of its Independence? A recent book by the retired Economics Services Officer, K L Datta, Growth and Development Planning in India, documents this journey from a policymaker’s perspective.

I was fortunate to be in the driver’s seat for a substantial part of that journey. I spent 19 years of my career at the Planning Commission, first planning the country’s food and energy reliance and then sustainable rural development that required engagement with the land, rivers, soils and climates of our country. Later, I stewarded the country’s premier university as it entered the select category of the world’s top hundred universities.

Datta was a colleague at the Planning Commission, who worked with me to define poverty. In this article, I cite his account, in which he has been generous to me. After finishing his IES training, Datta opted for the Planning Commission and was sent to me to decide if we would accept him.

I reportedly grilled the young recruit for three hours on his statistical training (I do not actually “grill” anybody, but we could have had a good discussion) and then asked him to join work, giving him a “brief” to work on defining poverty and frame it in an analytical context. A poverty line (Rs/person/day) was defined by a group of eminent economists in the early Sixties. Its report was not available, and its methodologies weren’t clear. I wanted some solid research that accounted for consumer behaviour in rural and urban areas and informed Datta that R Radhakrishna and Atul Sarma at the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research in Ahmedabad had worked on the issue. They got on the job and the taskforce I chaired defined a line which separated the non-poor and the poor in urban and rural areas. The report was discussed and validated in 1979. The approach used in the report defined the Official Poverty Line (OPL), which lasted for a decade.

When a later term as Planning Commission member came to an end, I wanted the OPL changed since it had served its purpose. In response, the Lakdawala Committee was set up. The committee’s report, submitted in 1993, updated the poverty line according to prices. In 2009, the Suresh Tendulkar committee did the same but applied the OPL urban line for both urban and rural areas. I was, at times, a spectator to all this, but did not always keep quiet. I got a polite hearing, being the granddaddy of the process but nobody was willing to tamper with the “Alagh Poverty Line” — it was rejigged, not drawn afresh.

In 1979, we wanted to change the world that we had inherited. India’s food production was stagnating, and the Hudson Institute in the US had predicted that millions would die. We built a model based on data to give us the drivers to change that. Datta describes all that. In 1979, I was asked by the World Bank why we had not only met our original target of producing 125 million tonnes of grain — which five years earlier they had called the dreams of the wild-haired boys of India’s Planning Commission — but also surpassed it in two years. I said Indira Gandhi — who was then in the Opposition – had supported us. I also pointed out jokingly that coming from Ahmedabad I made sure there were “reserves”.

Datta gives the insider’s story. His account ends with the Planning Commission being abolished and rules-based resource allocation given up by the NDA government. In a chapter, Datta expresses his anguish at this development. My only hope is that somebody out there reads his book and takes action to build a road map for the implementation of the farm laws.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 10, 2021 under the title ‘Creating drivers of change’. The writer, an economist, is a former Union minister

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