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Mainstream, VOL LII No 36, August 30, 2014

Remembering Yojana Bhawan

Sunday 31 August 2014, by Devaki Jain

While there is almost universal support for a change of style and focus in the Planning Commission, some of the language used and the attributes given to its earlier purpose and history are incorrect.

As someone who has been close to those who were engaged with the Planning Commission during some of the earliest plans such as the Third Five Year Plan, and then been part of various committees and individual consultations of the Planning Commission, I recall the lively free-thinking and open-minded debates that took place amongst the members and advisors to the Planning Commission in the fifties entering into the sixties. Ideas were debated publicly and most of those who were ‘governing’ in the Planning Commission were academics who had strong empirical base. K.N. Raj, the architect it is said of the First Plan, coming from the London School and RBI and the richness of the Kerala experience, was data-driven and always willing to argue. Pitamber Pant was looking at projections of the connection between domestic savings and the rate of growth while he drew up a Perspective Plan. Their ideas were discussed in small and large groups in the university, in the Planning Commission, in the drawing rooms of intellectuals. At the next phase when people like Raj Krishna came on board, there was a continuation of the main thrust of that era: that was planning for full employment. Employment with a special emphasis on the assetless, the landless was the thrust of their enormous empirical work done to maximise employment in the model built for each Plan. Collaboration between the NSSO and economists in and outside the Planning Commission was constantly pushing for more accurate understanding of what is now called exclusion.

As India entered the so-called reform process in the nineties, it was well understood in the public domain that the Plan could no more be in the driving seat of India’s economy. With the private sector and international capital being given a larger space even those within the Planning Commission were clear that no more could it be planned development as designed by the Planning Commission but it could only be what was called ‘indicative planning’. The Planning Commission could indicate the direction.

It should be recalled that there was a period in India before Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when people in government or higher places of political power were not imprisoned by security and in reverse the public was not so much excluded from what was happening inside the govern-ment. Thus my argument is that the Planning Commission, apart from other Ministries, had a more fluid relationship with the outside world and it did become something of a place to debate, to think, to argue, to modify.

The rigidity of the Planning Commission, the commanding heights of allocation—the kind of Planning Commission that people are criti-cising—came about in the next phase and got much more embedded as a Centralist authority in the last 15 years, say the last five Plans, strangely while the rhetoric was to liberalise. The Planning Commission became more of a controlling place! This new clutch of members brought in the bureaucratic model of a huge secretariat, like a Ministry—something that one is relieved to hear that the Prime Minister wishes to liquidate! It also set an unfortunate model for State Governments to set up boards which tried to govern the economy rather than facilitate economic energy. The Planning Commission—both Centre and in the States—began to be a place for parking friends of the government who could not be parked else-where—retired bureaucrats, politicians, who could not win elections even in the States, converted what was basically a think-tank and enabling space for constructing development administration and finance, into a political place.

Thus while it is certainly welcome that the Planning Commission would now be ‘reformed’ and not just reconstituted, the talk of its early genesis is ill-informed.

As it is now re-envisioning, it is important once again to not merely reform it, but to totally deconstruct the nature of the institution, its heavy bureaucracy. Liberate it from being a hand maiden of the government’s policies. But let it enable the voices, the movements for justice to design in detail how they would design development to fulfil their agenda. The voice of labour, the voice of Dalits and of course the voice of women. Also the knowledge driven views on linking of rivers, on building dams on mountains, on coastal and mountain development. Each of these subjects has enormous thinking and large movements seeking a hearing. The new structure could become not only a listening-post but enable informed reasoning, leading to policy-directives which protect India and her resources. And the case of communities, who feel excluded, to enable far greater inclusion of their intellectual contribution.

The author, a noted development economist, is a former Member of the South Commission.