Will a New
Vice-Chairman Mean a New NITI Aayog?
The Wire, August
By Pradeep S. Mehta & Abhishek
The success of Rajiv Kumar’s tenure,
who has moved from the left of the ideological spectrum to the
right, will depend whether he succeeds in moving the Aayog away
from being a government mouthpiece and creating a shared
narrative around job creation.
Two and a half years ago, the NITI Aayog replaced the Planning
Commission in what could be called a vengeful manner. In the
same two-and-a-half-year period, the think tank’s vice chairman
(VC) has now been replaced. Whatever may have been the reasons
behind the former VC’s exit, the fact is that the NITI Aayog
will continue to be watched closely not just by policy observers
but also by its boss – the prime minister.
After all, it is the success of the NITI Aayog’s performance
upon which rests the credibility of the prime minister’s
decision to create this new body as a better substitute to the
65-year-old Planning Commission.
Therefore, the vice-chairman designate of the NITI Aayog, Rajiv
Kumar, has much to prove. He has also much to establish for the
reputation of Aayog as a body that is truly engaged in
constructive policy advisory focussing on implementation rather
than a body that acts like a mouthpiece of the government.
Given the fact that there is a strong PMO and a powerful
swadeshi lobby, Kumar’s position is not an enviable one but an
important one nonetheless. Kumar is not only a man who has moved
from left of the ideological spectrum to the right but is also
an economist with a well-rounded perspective acquired from vast
experience in the government, industry and various think tanks.
He is also an insider to the policy landscape in India having
authored two books that have helped guide policymaking since
2014. These attributes should surely equip him to hit the ground
But his real test will lie in how skilled a ‘funambulist’ he
will be as he balances the expectations from the PMO, work with
other members of the think tank like fellow economists Bibek
Debroy and Ramesh Chand, manage complex interest of states and
deal with pressures from the swadeshi lobby while pursuing
reforms and transformatory ideas for India.
A lot will depend on what he chooses to pick as priority for the
NITI Aayog’s three-year work agenda and get everyone’s support.
His thinking on creating jobs vs tom-tomming growth as a matter
of national economic priority could well be the winning card. It
is surely not an either/or situation but the thrust on job
creation is central to our poverty eradication agenda,
particularly to cater to a rising youth population. In order to
do that, which is not an easy task, he would need to focus on an
agenda which can capture the imagination of the polity.
During the Planning Commission days, it was easy for the
commission to push an idea down the aisle as it had the control
over funds and hence over an agenda. For the NITI Aayog, the
most workable option to wield similar influence is through
developing a shared narrative. Because a shared narrative
evolves out of shared concerns. Collaborative action is possible
in this case – and what bigger shared concern is there in India
than job creation?
Kumar in the past has rightly advocated that government should
focus on job creation and let us add, creating job creators. He
can set this goal as an ultimate indicator of inclusive and
sustainable growth and start to rekindle life in the charter of
NITI Aayog to meet this goal. For instance, he should focus on
strengthening data gathering and analysis for better policy
designs. He should revive independent monitoring and evaluation
which can offer unalloyed insights. He should realign focus on
key building blocks of human capital – health and education,
which are key to economic growth and job creation.
Health, a bit too late?
By appointing Vinod Paul as a new member of the think tank,
government has indeed shown its seriousness about health
outcomes but such decisions cannot come so late in the day.
Paul’s appointment also opens up another discussion which for
some reason has not happened at all. It relates to the
composition of the Aayog. the NITI Aayog’s VC and four other
expert members are tasked with liaison with 29 states and seven
UTs across a huge bandwidth. There is a need to expand the
membership of NITI to ensure balanced work division on focussed
areas. Why is that we suddenly needed a health expert but not an
education expert or a competition expert?
This shows that someone would need to take a detailed view of
who is needed to ensure that the ultimate goal is brought to
fruition. As an operational head, the VC should take this call.
There are several ‘national assets’ like Nandan Nilekani who
enjoy bipartisan support whose services could be brought in a
suitable position to deal with niche areas at the Aayog, which
have a bearing on its larger vision.
With a change of guard there is also an opportunity to revisit
the performance of NITI Aayog vis-ŕ-vis its functions. One of
the envisaged goals of the NITI Aayog was also to develop
mechanisms to formulate credible plans at the village level and
aggregate these progressively at the higher level. Very little
of this cherished goal, which is also embedded in the
constitution, has indeed been accomplished. States are
responsible and need to be nudged by the NITI Aayog.
Similarly, the think tank need not reinvent policy
recommendations, especially in areas where years of work has
already been done. It should instead invite, through expert
members, research inputs on identified areas and should
synthesise recommendations based on empirical weight of the
research. This will cut time, cost and effort and will increase
timely policy inputs for the government.
Amongst others functions, the NITI Aayog is also supposed to
carry out innovative improvements in policies and programmes
based on feedback received from monitoring. Read carefully, this
function actually empowers the Aayog to disagree with policy
designs which may have gotten prior endorsements from powerful
lobbies in the government. This is one of reasons that we
advocate independent monitoring and evaluation.
A list of dos (and don’ts) for the NITI Aayog could be long and
much will depend on the leadership of the new VC. However, the
institution will do well if some of the ideas are already strewn
on the table when the new VC assumes office. In addition to the
above, it should also include ideas to streamline regulatory
governance by ensuring competition and regulatory impact
assessment to identify superior alternatives and using
structured transformative change making methodology to affect
credible change across range of issues and sectors.
And above all, for better implementation we sorely need
administrative reforms to create accountability, which has been
said ad nauseam and fortunately, the prime minister is well
seized of this matter.
The writers work for CUTS International.
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