A Futile Exercise?

There was consensus in the meeting of Chief Ministers that the present role of the Planning Commission needs change. The system of determining the size and direction of annual plans of the States should be done away with. The Planning Commission should not veto the plans if one State wants to focus on road making and another on education. It was also agreed that role of the States in running of the Commission should be strengthened. The main task of the Commission should be to make a road map for the development of the country.

The Planning Commission was established in the 1950s precisely for this purpose. The Commission has, at best, only been partially successful. More often it has failed to foresee the emerging problems. In its Annual Report for 1991-92, for example, the Commission sang praises of the achievements of the Seventh Five Year Plan that was implemented between 1985-90. All was well according to the Commission. Why then, did the Balance of Payments crisis of 1991 strike? Was it not the role of these "thinkers" to forewarn the Government of the impending danger? Or take the defeat of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2004. Till the very end the Planning Commission was happy flaunting false figures of crores of jobs having been created so that Prime Minister Vajpayee was kept in good humour. The Commission failed to warn the Government of the anti-people character of the policies that he had implemented. Then again think of the recent defeat of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In truth, the Commission did not provide any input to the Government of the seething anger that had gripped the polity. The Commission was merely singing the tune told by Manmohan Singh.

The problem is not limited to India. The Council of Economic Advisors is appointed by the US President to provide guidance on economic issues. In 2006-07 the Council had highly praised the dismantling of controls on the US banking system. It said that the American banking sector had become globally competitive because of deregulation. The Council utterly failed to foresee the heavy leveraging that the banks had gone into and that a housing bubble was in the making. The reason of these failures in India and abroad is that the so-called "thinkers" are appointed by the same Government whose errors and failures they are expected to highlight. A judge appointed by the thief can scarcely deliver justice. So also a "thinker" apoointed by the Government can scarcely take a critical view of the same Government.

The tragedy of the Planning Commission is that it has mostly been staffed by non-thinking former bureaucrats. IAS officials are like robots who will change their tune according to whims of the reigning minister so that they can save their plum posts. They are trained to follow instructions; not to think. Their thinking, if at all, is like the horse's vision—limited by the flaps put in place by the Ministers. Such persons can scarcely make a road map for the country which requires a critical assessment of past actions and also making an assessment experiences of other countries. The same goes for professors working for salary. They mostly peddle ideas that are liked by the Ministers so that avenues for prominent postings are opened. Every ‘government servant’ is fundamentally a non-thinking person. It is well known that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Indeed these paid pseudo-thinkers can suggest minor tinkering with programmes like changing the ratio of materials and labour components in MNREGA. But suggesting a paradigm shift is mostly outside the world view of these glorified shudras.

The way forward is to change the system of appointment to the new avatar of the Commission. All persons who have mainly spent their life serving another person should not be considered for appointment to the Commission. The Commission should be constituted from farmers, trade union leaders, businessmen, writers and the like who have the habit of thinking independently. Let the members be appointed by a collegium chaired by the Leader of the Opposition with a Minister of the ruling party as a member. Other members may be a judge of the Supreme Court and presidents of professional associations such as the Indian Economic Association and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. Let the collegium make public name of the candidates and hold Public Hearings both for the Members of Parliament and the public. Appointments to key offices in the United States are confirmed by a Committee of the Senate which holds in camera hearings. That brings an element of transparency and gives legitimacy to the person who is appointed. Such a process may remove the stranglehold of the reigning Government on the members of the Planning Commission and enable the members to give true advice to the people of the country.

Vol. 47, No. 26, Jan 4 - 10, 2015