Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Planning, the NITI Aayog Way

A disclaimer at the outset. I was born and brought up in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and thus my opinions are in all likelihood, biased and possibly contrarian from what would be the opinion of a significant majority of the populace of India. Also, adding to that. I am claim to be no expert on matters of policy, federal structure of our democracy, micro finance and all those aspects which typically I see go into discussions on this topic. What I intend to put forth is a small aspect of course correction, something I feel would go a long way in recognizing and imbibing the diversity of India as a nation.

National Institution for Transforming India Aayog, popularly known by the pseudonym NITI Aayog, was announced by the Prime Minister of India Mr. Narendra Modi as a part of his speech on the Independence Day of India on August 15, 2014. Essentially, it was a revamp of the Planning Commission of India which was instituted by Jawaharlal Nehru who was impressed by a similar body that existed in Joseph Stalin’s USSR. For many, the Planning Commission epitomizes a socialist thought process – one that is often critiqued as weaker to its capitalist brethren. While it remains to be seen whether this turns out to be a case of old wine in a new bottle or this venture does infuse fresh energy into the policy making decisions of the union government, there is one aspect I wish to point out. I am not very familiar with the activities of the Planning Commission of India over the past half century, but if I were to guess, this issue would’ve existed in those days as well. The lack of respect for the diversity and plurality of India.

To illustrate, I wish to take a different, probably a completely tangential analogy. I studied in a Kendriya Vidyalaya, a central government chain of schools, in my home state of Kerala. Geographically Kerala (as with other territories like Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands) is located close to the equator and enjoys a tropical climate throughout the year. There is not much difference in the length of day during summers and winters. Sometime around the year 2000, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan took a decision to bring up the school hours which till then, was from 9 AM to 3.30 PM, by almost two hours. So in effect, this made the school hours from 7.30 AM to around 2 PM. This decision was made to ensure maximum utilization of day hours in winter and to shift the school hours from the peak sunny time of the day in summers. While I actually did like the new school hours, the decision was probably relevant to a large part of northern and western India but did not consider the southern and eastern parts of the country. The point I am trying to make is, while the intention might indeed have been noble, the blanket implementation might not have been well thought off.

As much as we like to propagate the idea of India as a country of diversity, along with the territory of celebration of the diverse nature of our fabric, we must not turn a blind eye to the diversity of problems confronting the various regions of the country. Taking the specific example of my state of Kerala, a myriad of problems she faces are quite different from those faced by a lot of other territories in the Indian Union (Singling out Kerala here because I am more familiar with the state, this analogy could be extrapolated to other states in other fields as well). For instance, the Prime Minister’s dream scheme for comprehensive financial inclusion of the Indian population, the Jan Dhan Yojana does not add much value to Kerala which has, over the past few decades, had significant financial inclusion statistics. A case for the same effect can also be made out for Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme, which is aimed at eradicating gender based discrimination against women among other similar objectives. Again, Kerala has been traditionally a state where education across both sexes has historically been very high and not much discrimination exists against women as compared to a lot of other states in the union and hence, this scheme would not be very much relevant when juxtaposed with Kerala’s social indicators. While not going into depth, I would also argue that education and primary healthcare are also sectors where the state is generally considered to be farther ahead of a lot of its North Indian peers, if not all.

I am not trying here to spew propaganda. The point I am trying to put across is an allocation of plans and expenditures according to, not only the population or clout of the state, but also the strengths (and thereby, weaknesses) of the state. There are states that have a significant dependence on agriculture, on industries or natural resources or on services and tertiary sectors. The needs for them are different and more often than not, mutually independent and so should be the allocations. Hopefully, NITI Aayog will do better than Planning Commission which, to me, sometimes seemed to incentivize poor performance of states and victimize better performance of others when deciding on fiscal spending for central government policies.

Post Script: You can find some relevant news information on NITI Aayog here and here.

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