What is common between the Family Planning Department and Planning Commission? Both are white elephants. Both have let the nation down for the last six decades. Family Planning (now rechristened Family Welfare) has failed to stop deliveries. Planning Commission has failed to deliver. Because of these infamous institutions, India has suffered extensively. PM Narendra Modi seems to have decided to junk the commission in its current form. It had become a parallel power centre under former PM Manmohan Singh and his Sancho Panza, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who dictated and decided the direction of India’s growth and development. Aided by foreign-educated advisers, Ahluwalia, a free-market promoter by conviction, used the commission to impose the US model of economics on the country. For the past 10 years, the commission has made the poor poorer and the rich richer and created wide disparities between various regions of the country. According to many former UPA ministers, as special invitee to all the Cabinet meetings and other Empowered Group of Ministers, Ahluwalia decided the fate of many projects and even the allocation of funds to the states. Heated arguments would often break out between him and Cabinet ministers on various issues and policies. Finally, he would have his way, supported by the PM.
Set up in 1950, the commission was expected to ensure “the operation of the economic system doesn’t result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment”. No doubt, it was meant to promote public sector and ensure equitable distribution of national resources so that India’s poor would rise above the poverty level. The home page of the commission declares: “Planning Commission was set up by a Resolution of the Government of India in March 1950 in pursuance of declared objectives of the Government to promote a rapid rise in the standard of living of the people by efficient exploitation of the resources of the country, increasing production and offering opportunities to all for employment in the service of the community. The Planning Commission was charged with the responsibility of making assessment of all resources of the country, augmenting deficient resources, formulating plans for the most effective and balanced utilisation of resources and determining priorities.” The PM has always been its Chairman since Independence.
But over 120 members, including prominent economists who have served the commission since its inception, disregarded the mandate they were given. After Nehru’s death, it became the dumping ground for either unwanted civil servants or employment pastures for the old boy network and establishment stooges. For the first time, an adviser in the commission even asked for a royalty on a PPP document he authored for the commission. Even after 12 Five-Year Plans, over one-fourth of India lives below the poverty line at Rs 32 per day (as defined by Ahluwalia); over 60 per cent are homeless; 70 per cent of households are denied potable water; 65 per cent are without electricity and about 30 per cent don’t have access to primary education. The commission has been accused of packing its establishment with people who were paid to mine data, which would eventually find its way to mighty multinationals and semi-commercial institutions to help them plan their India business.
During the past decade, the commission has spent more time clearing projects like airports, highways and privatisation of natural resources, and less on poverty elimination and basic healthcare. With a core team of 20 that includes ministers and seven full-time members, the commission is assisted by over 60 advisers who have hardly ever served in small towns or villages. Most members have been associated with the corporate sector or academic institutions. During the last decade, the commission involved many pro-Congress NGOs to influence the policy framework in such a way that only their favourite projects got priority.
It’s not only the structure or composition of the commission that necessitates its abolition in the Modi Model of Governance, in which speed and not stupor gets priority. The commission has been a roadblock when it came to quick dispersal of funds to various ministries and states. Modi doesn’t want a multi-window system. The commission symbolises a regulated and controlled development process, driven by skewed priorities. The new PM is pushing for a monitored roadmap for development. For 60 years, the commission took various ideological turns, from Socialist, to a mixed economy and finally towards free market. Of late, it was known as the most powerful institution where crony capitalism flourished uninterrupted. Nehru established it keeping a defined mission in mind. But the commission has lost its political and economic relevance.
The commission was a source of nepotism in the government. Manmohan Singh appointed over 30 commissions, missions and panels to advise him on issues varying from potatoes to politics. He adopted the policy of show-me-the face and I-will-find-the-job. Missions on literacy, water, sanitation, skill development and knowledge were set up only to create a parallel system to the ministries. At one point of time, there were more heads of various commissions holding Cabinet rank than the actual number of Cabinet ministers in UPA. Curiously, a large number of them are drawn from various business and academic bodies. Some are just junior-level functionaries of business forums such as CII, FICCI and Assocham, whose primary job seems to be networking with officials and collecting important data for their own benefit.
Modi needs to order social audit of these institutions to discover whether they actually delivered on their mandate. According to finance ministry sources, over Rs 500 crore is spent every year just on salaries and establishment costs of such bodies. If Modi has to give a concrete shape to his mantra of Minimum Government, Maximum Governance, he has to strike at the culture of cronyism and purge the establishment of sycophants. Dismantling the commission will define the ideological contours of Mission Modi.
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