Struck off in one blow

The Planning Commission needed to be returned to its first purposes, to its transparent and audacious planning for an India progressing without old enervations and new injustices to prosperity.

Published - August 18, 2014 11:57 pm IST

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

The 18th century nursery rhyme, its original probably a riddle, is loved for the one image it invokes — a great fall. The picture of a dumpy egg, of a being crashing to his well-deserved and irreparable end provokes mirth among children. It also provides to short-of-ideas parents and teachers the relief of a successful attempt at distraction.

The Union Planning Commission has been toppled off in a progressively untenable balancing act. Reconciling projection with implementation, performance with evaluation, discussion with allocation has taken its toll.

And applause greets its fall.

I regard this as not just unfair and unfortunate but positively dangerous for with all its Humpty Dumptyness, the Planning Commission represents a crucial strand of our post-Independence self-definition. It represents a people whose leaders very consciously integrated India’s political goals with its social and economic aspirations and made planned economic progress a tool not just for progress per se but for balanced well-being.

Origins of planning

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological family would do well to note that the first almost rudimentary idea of economic planning as part of republican justice in India arose not from the father of Indian planning, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his exceptional colleague in planning, P.C. Mahalanobis, but from another equally kinetic twosome. In a vital blueprint drawn in 1938 when he was Congress President, Netaji Subhas Bose, with the collaboration of the physicist and mathematician, Meghnad Saha, gave us a glimpse of all that planning for the long term, by an independent and transparent apex, could do for an India of the future.

In his presidential address at the Haripura session of the Congress in February 1938, Netaji envisaged “the first task of the Government of Free India” as being the setting up of a “National Planning Commission” in order to address the task of fighting poverty. He created what was, in effect, the nucleus for the future Union Planning Commission in the National Planning Committee under the aegis of the Indian National Congress, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Chairman of the Committee.

It is important that this link in our planning chain be remembered for thus reason: If an institution’s or a tradition’s calibre is best judged by the state of its performance, its purpose is best gleaned by the stature of its provenance.

The intent of the national planning process was, basically, threefold — One, to provide a framework for the orderly development of the economy. Two, to mediate the process of planning and plan funding as between the Union Finance Ministry’s budgetary prerogatives and its various ministries, and as between the Centre and the States. Three, and most importantly, to evaluate the quality of programme implementation and convey its findings to the government.

By making Centre-States interlocution a structured part of national development, the Planning Commission became a keeper of India’s federal conscience.

Federating, in India, is not just about bringing constituent geopolitical units together for certain ends. It is about linking, bridging, vestibuling the large with the small, the strong with the weak, the naturally privileged with the inherently underprivileged. It is about levelling a very uneven, potholed terrain.

A mixed record

It only followed that a national planning exercise should enjoy a measure of independence from the attitudinally constraining, politically constricting and systemically inundating ethos of governments. To plan was to think, think independently and think full-time.

All this, those who have signed the Planning Commission’s death warrant would do well to know. They would also do well to know that founded in 1951, with our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as its first Chairman, the Planning Commission led from the front. The first three Plan Documents had a foundational ring to them, ranking in idealism and earnestness with the preamble to the Constitution. The decades of the 1950s and the 1960s were in many senses the Planning Commission’s golden age.

It had stalwart Indians from what may be called non-Congress streams of thought-shaping as Deputy Chairmen. V.T. Krishnamachari and Ashok Mehta in the Nehru years, with Mahalanobis and Pitambar Pant providing intellectual sinew and ideological leaven, made it a veritable engine of activity. Pant established a tradition of empirical analysis within government in the matter of planning and policy formulation. In other words, he showed that the Planning Commission is an instrument for critical self-analysis, perhaps the only state body to be so.

The Gadgil formula

But during the 1970s and the 1980s, when the Congress was in office, singularly un-independent Congressmen holding the Planning portfolio in the Union Cabinet were also made Deputy Chairmen. This diminished the autonomy, the vitality and even the credibility of the body and of the process of independent planning itself.

To two Maharashtrian Deputy Chairmen must go the credit of having given to the planning process and, indeed, to India’s economic polity itself, much needed bouts of spring-cleaning.

The first was the economist D.R. Gadgil. Made Deputy Chairman by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he was veritably a Deputy Prime Minister for Planning. Critiquing the planning methodology that had been followed until then for lack of objectivity and, more, for not being equitable, Gadgil evolved the formula that later bore his name, to make plan transfers to States more balanced. Making population, tax-effort and tax-receipts, per capita income and special problems and needs the basis for plan transfers, Gadgil created the concept of Special Category States like Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland which were to be given preference, their needs first being met out of the total pool of Central assistance.

The second was the socialist Madhu Dandavate. Palagummi Sainath has told us in the columns of this newspaper how the “poverty line” has fluctuated and how now “a mere 29.9 per cent of India’s population is below the official poverty line (BPL).” He has narrated the story of how “Kill me, I say,” said Deputy Chairman Madhu Dandavate in 1996, chuckling. “I just doubled poverty in your country today.” Dandavate had just jettisoned a methodology or an exercise used by Yojana Bhavan before he came to head it, that had by a sleight of hand “brought poverty down” to 19 per cent in 1993-94 from 25.5 per cent in 1987-88.

Since the 1970s the Planning Commission has been in a Slough of Despond. The ritual of annual plan discussions over the years turned what should have been a dynamic body of thinkers and chapter-turners into an impersonal ATM.

Reports on performance that did not lead to mid-course correction, flounderings at the doors of implementing ministries, “out-sourcing” studies to teams outside the public domain, among other factors, routinised it and robbed it of the defining role Netaji Subhas intended for it and Nehru worked to achieve.

A cliché describes cutting off the head because it aches.

Giving it a Deputy Chairman like D.R. Gadgil and Madhu Dandavate, doing strategic long-term planning for the States and critically evaluating programme implementation would have enabled the Planning Commission to retrieve its intent and fulfil its federal mandate.

Abolitions in free India

Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolished untouchability.

Zamindari was abolished in 1951.

Dowry came to be abolished in 1961.

Privy purses to former Princes were abolished in 1971.

Privileges have been abolished in India, unevennesses legislated away.

Abolishing the Planning Commission turns the clock’s hands back. It distances the Indian state from India’s federal spirit. It makes self-analysis and self-criticism alien to government. It makes bridge-building between the weak and the strong, the centre and the peripheries, seem irrelevant.

More, it portrays planning and conceptualising as a luxury. “We are doers, not thinkers,” is the abolition’s subtext.

The Planning Commission needed to be returned to its first purposes, to its transparent and audacious planning for an India progressing without old enervations and new injustices to prosperity. It needed to be returned to its founding documents, its defining mandates. There are steps that could have been taken to make its plan-fund transfers more consultative, less conditional, more participative, less prescriptive. These changes could not have been carried out by UPA-I or -II, mid-course or end-stream. The new government could have done so with reason and credence, on its “first page.”

The Planning Commission needed mending, not ending.

It did not call for capital punishment.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is Senior Fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.)

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