It is an irony of fate. The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) was formally launched in February 2014. IEO is a body—at arm’s length distance—attached to the Planning Commission, under a governing board chaired by the commission’s deputy chairman (which of course begs the question: how’s that ‘arm’s length’?) to monitor and evaluate the efficacy of the government’s flagship programmes. I do not know whether the IEO has published any reports till now—two reports, one on the public distribution system and the other on maternal mortality—were promised to be released this summer, but it is on the front pages of newspapers for the first time because of its recommendation to the Union government to abolish the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission did have something called a Programme Evaluation Office, which also started life as an independent body, but later became a division of the Commission—and, naturally, ineffectual.

The demand for scrapping the Planning Commission—or at least, dramatically redefining it, from its very mission to its powers—is nothing new. Nearly 20 years ago, an economist associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had written in a magazine opinion piece that the Commission should be wound up and Yojana Bhavan, its imposing headquarters, should be turned into a massive mall for the amusement of the rising Indian middle class. The prime real estate at the heart of New Delhi would be of much greater use that way.

Former finance minister P. Chidambaram had called the Planning Commission “too big, flabby and unwieldy at the moment". Even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a former deputy chairman of the Commission, had said that “we need to reflect on what needs to be the role of the Planning Commission in this new world." In his recent book Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions, former Planning Commission member Arun Maira recalls Singh telling him, as far back as 2009, that the Commission should re-invent itself as a Systems Reform Commission. This exact terminology has been used by author and former National Democratic Alliance minister Arun Shourie a couple of days ago.

To figure out what the Commission’s role should be, Maira was given a list of “20 respected citizens of the country", including former senior bureaucrats, former Planning Commission members, and leading industrialists, who he should speak to. To the question whether the Planning Commission was playing a useful role for the country, all 20 answered: “No." India was quite a different country now from what it was two decades ago. It was more decentralized, both politically and administratively. Post-1991, the private sector had become perhaps the most significant force in the economy, and was now an important participant in even areas which had for decades been solely the government’s domain, such as infrastructure—from telecom to power to roads and civil aviation. The Indian economy was far more strongly connected now with the global economy.

A group of economists and statisticians deciding which way the country would—and should—progress and allocating funds accordingly, was decidedly a relic of the past. State governments often felt humiliated about haggling with the Commission for more funds or redirecting funds. After all, the state chief ministers knew much more—and first-hand—about what their states needed than these men in Delhi, and in many cases, the political parties of these chief ministers were keeping the Central government still in power.

Besides, clashes between the finance ministry and the Planning Commission were common, though they did not often become public. The Planning Commission deputy chairman saw his role as thinking big, and usually that demanded a lot of money to be invested by the government. The finance minister saw his primary task as keeping expenditures and the fiscal deficit down.

In a letter that then-finance minister Chidambaram wrote to former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia in August 2006, he objected strongly to the Commission’s proposal to hike social sector expenditure in the 11th plan. using the memorable phrase: “You do not repair a leaking water supply pipe by stepping up the water pressure." That is, first reform the delivery mechanism, then raise spends.

In an interaction with journalists later (at which I was present), Ahluwalia said: “The analogy is cute but incorrect. If the leak can be plugged in a day, we can maintain the same water pressure. But if it’s going to take years, and we also want more water to reach the other side of the pipe, we need to increase pressure. Both have to be done simultaneously."

The people that Maira spoke to about what they wanted the Planning Commission to be, told him that there was need for a strategic group of experts, who would act as a sort of radar, look at trends inside India and abroad, and provide insights and advice to both government and industry on the forces that would impact our future, and the shape of things to come. In other words, they wanted the Planning Commission to operate as a a super-think-tank rather than allocate funds and approve proposals with a five-year time horizon, an activity that had become much less relevant and even sterile in a dynamic and complex environment.

This is exactly what the IEO is suggesting, that the Planning Commission be replaced by a Reforms and Solutions Commission, staffed, not by generalist bureaucrats, but by experts. The Commission would report to the prime minister and “have a defined relationship with Parliament" (currently, the Planning Commission is not accountable to the Parliament; in fact, it does not appear to be accountable to anyone).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking from Day 1 about ministries taking greater charge of their areas of responsibility and being more accountable. This is certainly a praiseworthy objective. And it will definitely be a quicker, more open and more coordinated way of functioning if the central ministries can deal directly with the state governments without going through the bottleneck of the Planning Commission. This will certainly streamline governance and bring more accountability into the whole process.

The IEO’s recommendations are to be lauded. In a way, it’s a pity that its first act is an attempt to kill its arm’s-length parent, but the Planning Commission, in its present form, has certainly outlived its purpose. It played an extremely crucial role in independent India’s economic history, and its contributions will always be appreciated. But it’s time for it to hang up its boots and appear in a new avatar, more relevant, and perhaps even more crucial.

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