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To be or not to be
Former finance secretary K P Geethakrishnan used to describe Yojana Bhavan, the headquarters of the Planning Commission as the Bhojana Bhavan. For good reason: the vada and other delicacies at the Bhavan’s canteen used to be really delicious.

KPG pointed to the Commission set up at the whim of Jawaharlal Nehru and Professor Mahanolobis in 1950 without a statutory edict. Nehru was an admirer of the Soviet model of planning and conceived the Commission on the model of USSR’s Gosplan. From 1952 to 1990, in the era of licences, permits and quotas, the Commission allocated resources for the different sectors. It went into the minutest details of the priorities to be accorded to the different sectors, production capacities to be created, whetting down and clearing state plans...

 

Worked in the initial years...

In initial years, the concept seemed to work well. The priority for agriculture given in the First Plan (1952-57) was backed by handsome allocations for the construction of large irrigation cum power projects. The Second Plan gave high priority to steel and heavy industries. The focus was on self-sufficiency.

The concept of planning suffered when the country was unable to raise large resources. Thus after the Third Plan, the severe resource crunch and the steep devaluation of the rupee in 1966 led to a three year holiday for planning over five years.

 

Lost much clout

Over time Yojana Bhavan lost much of its clout and became a spot to accommodate sundry politicians who had either lost their elections or didn’t want to contest one. This also extended to sundry economists and other specia-

lists accommodated for their proximity to the power centre. There have been no effective mechanisms or interest in evaluating their contributions. With the commencement of the liberalisation era, the rule of the Planning Commission got diluted.

 

Vast gaps between targets and performance…

Yojana Bhavan created huge structures to evaluate the plans and programmes submitted by the different ministries. It had little teeth and failed to monitor effectively progress of projects and in effecting needed course corrections. And there was no responsibility attached for such failure.

Manomohan Singh entrusted the task of heading Yojana Bhavan to his trusted friend Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The suave, articulate, gregarious and knowledgeable MSA was perhaps one of the few leaders of the UPA I and II governments to project and defend performance. But the lack of hands-on experience in grassroots planning and failure to monitor progress of even prestigious mega projects resulted in vast gaps between pro-

mise and performance. The number of mega steel projects announced at Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Odisha were non-starters. Finance Minister P Chidambaram could just lament the locking up of projects worth over Rs 700,000 crores; but none was made accountable for this non-performance.

Sam Pitroda could show considerable progress over a short period in the late 1980s through the Technology Mission for oil seeds. The agriculture extension machinery taken to the farmer performed so effectively under C Subramaniam but rusted in the last three decades plus. Sadly, Planning Commission would not do much to arrest the poor growth of agriculture. Worse still is the management of the huge buffer stocks.

Narendra Modi, with his long tenure as chief minister, doesn’t seem to be quite impressed with the role of the Planning Commission.  In the present dispensation, the PMO and the powerful finance ministry are slated to assume much of the functions of the Planning Commission. Such a system can help speed up decision-making. Still, there is need for close monitoring of the progress of projects cleared, in close co-operation with the  concerned states. The type of havoc caused by succession of ministers put in charge of environment contributed to the poor record of UPA II.  Cutting the different channels for decision making, including the down-sizing and even scraping the Yojana Bhavan, should be a step in this direction.

 

Big scope for downsizing government

A decade ago, the Expenditure Reforms Commission headed by K P Geethakrishnan laboured hard to go in detail into the working of dozens of government departments. It made a thorough analysis of the futility of running several departments and came out with concrete plans to downsize several of these. The Prime Minister would do well to dust these volumes and look closely at the recommendations. It certainly fits with his motto of less government and more governance.

 

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