As India emerges from Covid and adjusts to the reality of war in Europe, what is needed is an institution in government that can think long and deep, not plan but strategize.
The NITI Aayog of the Government of India has its third Vice-Chairman in its eighth year of existence. On May 1, economist Suman K. Bery will replace economist Rajiv Kumar, who has headed the Aayog since September 2017. Interestingly, he had fewer CEOs. Incumbent Amitabh Kant is only the second CEO of the Aayog, more than six years into his tenure, following the brief one-year tenure of Sindhushree Khullar, who continued the former planning commission. What does the recent appointment mean for the Aayog as they continue to strive to forge a clear identity and role for themselves?
There is little point in comparing the NITI Aayog to its predecessor, the Planning Commission, but many people do. It was never intended as an extension or modification of that institution. For technical reasons, it was designated as the successor institution, which meant that it could take over the Planning Commission’s infrastructure, both physically and in terms of staff. But in hindsight that might have been a mistake. A new institution had the chance to make a clear break. In adopting the organizational structure and staff of the Planning Commission, she bound herself to some of the conventions, practices, and habits of her predecessor.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was absolutely right in abolishing the Planning Commission. It was a relic of the pre-1991 socialist era and already lived a quarter of a century past its sell-by date. Ironically, for its last 10 years it has been led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Montek Singh Ahluwalia as vice-chairman, two men closely associated with India’s shift from its pre-1991 economic policies to a move towards market-oriented policies. The days of five-year plans and dictating how states would spend their resources, the two main tasks of the Planning Commission, were long gone. In fact, its existence had become counterproductive as states and central ministries resisted its power to interfere in well-made policies.
The new NITI Aayog, formed a few months after the announcement of the abolition of the Planning Commission, was designed as a policy think tank for the government and as a facilitator/facilitator of states’ development efforts. By merging the Independent Assessment Bureau with the Aayog, it would also play a role in monitoring and assessing the implementation of government programs. However, as the structure and staff were inherited, its nature and capabilities did not change under the new mandate.
If anything, capacity has been reduced due to significant mid-level staff transfers in an attempt to downsize. At the state-of-the-art Joint Secretary level, almost everyone was a career official, more attuned to exercising power and authority than building intellectual capital or playing the role of technical support specialists. The monitoring and evaluation function can never be well exercised by career civil servants, as they have little interest in enforcing accountability from their counterparts in ministries and also because a post in a ministry is often their personal goal.
Because the organization’s structure and human resources do not fit well with its mandate, the institution appears to be floating without a clear purpose. Some corrections have been made. Lateral entry, which should have been the backbone of the institution from the start, has picked up some momentum, but mainly at levels below Advisor/Joint Secretary. Most of the outside recruitment comes from young professionals who do not threaten the power and authority of anyone in the system. However, with only a year of experience after a master’s degree, they cannot muster the intellectual capital for a major government body.
If the Aayog did very well, it’s because the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO) has given it specific responsibilities, such as the Aspirational Districts Program. Or because its dynamic, reform-minded CEO, Amitabh Kant, has used his own considerable powers of persuasion to drive crucial policies such as asset monetization. Other people have also exerted influence, such as member VK Paul in the health sector, but mainly because of their own size, not the weight of the institution.
As India emerges from Covid and adjusts to the reality of war in Europe, what is needed is an institution in government that can think long and deep, not plan but strategize. Suman Bery had a long and distinguished tenure as head of the Delhi-based think tank NCAER and later was chief economist at Shell, where he was part of the scenarios group dedicated to thinking about the future and advising management. He should not get bogged down in routine administrative matters and instead focus on building the intellectual abilities of NITI Aayog. By re-appointing an economist rather than a politician to a Cabinet-level post, the Prime Minister has signaled that he wants NITI to be a capable and professional think tank with policy expertise. NITI has an important role to play in transforming India, but it must also transform itself.
The author is Chief Economist Vedanta and was OSD and Head, Economics, Finance & Commerce, NITI Aayog, 2015-2018.