The Planning Commission has been through several avatars, from being a professional handle to direct the Indian economy to becoming a marginalized yet busy institution. News items this month reporting a possible new role for the body rightly point to the need to recast this hoary institution. For instance, the idea that it could be the monitoring body is good. There are several historical facts that can be used in this reform process.
First, as it stands now, members of the commission are divided according to the subjects they monitor and steer. But these subjects are exactly similar to the Union ministries. For example, the commission’s women and child development subject mainly serves as a bouncing board and fund-creating cell for the ministry of women and child development. Progress is measured in terms of the effective implementation and some statistical outcome from the ministry’s side. The commission responds to new schemes and funding patterns that the ministry proposes.
It is the same story with the other divisions. They become a creature of the ministries. The members themselves have recognized this as a debilitating feature, making it one of the reasons to rethink the commission’s role and operations.
Therefore, to reform this institution, two ideas are relevant. One, a thorough case study of the mechanisms and outcomes in the relationship between the commission and any ministry—say, the ministry of women and child development— would show, or be an exercise in finding, the anatomy of the process as it stands now. This could help identify its strengths and weaknesses.
Two, going back in history would show some moments in the evolution of the commission that had overarching effects in leading India’s political economy.
A famous example is the late Pitambar Pant’s 15-year “perspective plan” showing how different savings rates would determine different rates of growth for India. An old-fashioned exercise, no doubt, but it was an exercise in public education and could be said to fall in the category of what economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has called “public reasoning”.
Another exciting idea that demonstrated public reasoning, and was developed against some political or economic ethic, was during the famous Fifth Plan (1974-79), to some extent masterminded by Sukhamoy Chakravarty. It was a Plan that had an underlying ethic of consumption restraint and equity-building presumptions or premises.
In remodelling the commission as a think tank, it is possible to imagine it engaging itself in more inward-looking exercises. It could start by preparing a document that outlines a political economy philosophy to engage the public and propose choices affecting the people at large, as Pant did.
This is particularly the time for such creative thinking as the overdrive of the market economy and the dependence on foreign trade as an engine of growth are being questioned, not to mention the behaviour of financial markets.
If such inward-looking exercises and generation of these ideas become the commission’s role, then it will have to prune itself. The huge staff churning out chapters and writing notes can be dismantled. Instead, ideas and practices could not only be designed by and distributed among the commission’s members, but also constantly bounced off the public—somewhat similar to the way the process is followed during the preparation of the budget.
However, downsizing bureaucracies and shedding staff in government agencies is a major challenge, which may never happen. But any attempt to do less than this kind of deep surgery at this time would just be one more of those “running in place” ideas.
Devaki Jain was a lecturer in economics at the University of Delhi, and later director of the Institute of Social Studies. She has also been a member of the erstwhile South Commission, and is now on the governing council of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org