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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Blind Men Of Niti Aayog

It outlined a vision, but has failed to reveal the path.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Updated: April 27, 2017 12:02:27 am
Niti Aayog, Niti Aayog vision, Arvind Panagariya, indian economy, india economic growth, Meghnad Desai, niti aayog failures, indian express news, india news, indian express opinion Panagariya is too good an economist not to know the mess we are in.

The Niti Aayog has given us visions. They are for three years and long-term. I thought there would be some technical work behind it, but if it is there, it is a closely guarded secret. Meanwhile, cars and air conditioners, much desired in this terrible heat, and other goodies as well are coming out of our ears.

If you ask how and why, I guess you are being anti-national. To be fair, it is the job of a futures think tank to give us a perspective. But without details of how we get there, we are left like Oliver Twist, asking for more. Not more cars, but more details of how we get to that Nano.

Of course, we also expect this from Arvind Panagariya, the vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog. His book on the Indian economy was the best for teaching and now, Vijay Joshi also competes. Very few Indian economists (not NRIs, but those living here) write text books — I am soon coming out with one.

Writing in The Financial Express, he has set to rest the characterisation of the Eighties by economists like Meghnad Desai, asserting that “in contrast to the isolated ad hoc policy measures taken to release immediate pressures prior to the 1980s, [the Eighties] taken as a whole, constituted significant change and an activist programme.

For example, by 1990, approximately 20 per cent of the tariff lines and 30 per cent of imports had come under OGL (open general licence)… import licensing on many other products was eased up”. So, the standards for him have to be set high. By that, I mean not more cars but details.

Panagariya is too good an economist not to know the mess we are in. The Index of Industrial Production grew, the CSO told us recently, by 2.4 per cent in 2015/16, but only by 0.4 per cent in April 2016/February 2017, the latest period for which we have the facts. In February 2017, the growth was minus 1.2 per cent. Since 2012, when the slide started, we are routinely that told the next quarter will be better, but not how. Of course, this does not mean that we should not have a vision for a better future. Just that the consolidation of the past can give us a foothold on the ground on which we will know how the future can be solidly constructed, brick by brick. But the Niti Aayog, giving us a vision, steadfastly refuses to construct the future.

At the beginning of the century, I was asked, amongst others by the UN, about how, looking ahead, India would move to a higher growth path of, say, 7 to 8 per cent. Going back to the lessons my teachers taught me, I said we will have to save more. What is called factor productivity will have to grow at 5 per cent annually, not 3 per cent. For that, we will need more trade. The desi abroad is doing the saving for us and sending it across with a benign Urjit Patel underwriting him with an impossible interest rate. But President Trump may put a spanner in all that.

If there are other ways, Panagariya could tell us. Then we could seriously debate the vision. Until then, as Keynes said, even mad men have visions. The Niti Aayog is too respected an institution to fall in that category.

As an old-timer in this game, I am struck by the careful attempt at reconstructing planning. We want the aura of the much benighted Yojana Bhavan. We want the experts to talk about it and the chief ministers to go there. We want three-year action plans (then, I suppose, a “mid-term review”) and a perspective. I see this in respected figures, who want to meet me over chai or lassi in my lair in Ahmedabad. I meet everybody who has time for me for that is the only way I can earn my pension. I insist they come to my place and since many are “politically influential”, not to my apolitical workplace.

With some of the head beagles, as it were, at the thought level, we have fascinating detours, sometimes of over two hours; more often than not, we decide the real issue for India to get its global glory is growth across gender, caste or religious lines, for markets cannot function otherwise. Also, we must grow fast or we will end up in the dustbin of history. If we do, we may be able to show another way. The head beagles agree, so Insha Allah, I hope, we will turn around and do it. In these things, consensus matters.

The writer, an economist, is a former Union minister

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