The best laid plans: On NITI Aayog
NITI Aayog’s shift away from five-year plans requires more substance
Narendra Modi is not the first Chief Minister to have gone on to become Prime Minister. But given his well-known disdain for the erstwhile Planning Commission’s control-and-command approach towards States and his oft-repeated emphasis on ‘cooperative federalism’, there were great expectations from the successor organisation, the NITI Aayog. The Five Year Plans — the last one ended on March 31 — were relegated to history, to be replaced by a three-year action plan. This was to be part of a seven-year strategy that would in turn help realise a 15-year long-term vision. When the Aayog’s Governing Council that includes the Prime Minister and all Chief Ministers met, it was hoped that the fine print as well as the big picture of the new planning approach had been worked out. However, all that was handed out was a draft action agenda for the three years till 2019-20, with 300 specific action points. This agenda is meant to be the first step towards attaining the envisioned outcomes by 2031-32. This ‘New India’, as NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Arvind Panagariya put it, will ensure housing for all, with toilets, LPG, power and digital connections; access to a personal vehicle, air conditioner and white goods for ‘nearly all’; and a fully literate population with universal health care.
Assuming that the economy grows at 8% annually hereon, the Aayog has presented estimates about the size of the economy and per capita incomes by 2031-32, though juxtaposing these with China’s performance in the last 15 years is a bit odd. India’s GDP will rise by ₹332 lakh crore in the next 15 years, the Aayog reckons. The bare details of the 15-year vision that have been shared seem like motherhood statements with some optimistic numerical guesswork. But even that is more than we know about the seven-year strategy. Without the larger strategy and vision in place, the three-year action plan is likely to be more of an abstract wish list that Chief Ministers will now evaluate and revert on. Effectively, till it is ratified by the Council, there is a vacuum in India’s policy framework — similar to the delayed starts of past Five Year Plans. It is not yet apparent if the 12th Plan’s innovation of painting alternative scenarios (of actions and outcomes) — a more useful tool for longer-term planning — has been adopted. Meanwhile, the PM’s message to States to speed up capital expenditure and infrastructure development is important as pump-priming the economy is not only the Centre’s task. All the same, asking the States to take the initiative on switching India’s financial year to match the calendar year is unusual as it requires the Centre to take the lead by making public the report of the committee that has recommended this. To make cooperative federalism truly effective, the Council, or Team India as Mr. Modi calls it, must meet more often — a nearly two-year gap in doing so is a recipe for communication breakdown.