The big question that people have in mind the moment they hear of NITI Aayog is, is this something like Gurugram – just a change in the name with everything else remaining the same? Most people i speak to seem to think so. And that doesn't sound too exciting, given the amount that needs to be done in the nation.
The truth is, the Planning Commission indeed needed changes. Sweeping changes. And the thought was indeed in the right direction by Modi. Having been a member of the consultative committee to the Planning Commission of India briefly, and then interacting with its members, I know first hand the lack of dynamism and focus that was there in the Planning Commission. In any case, the Planning Commission of India had become a pure insult to the word "planning" within a few years of its setting up. The word planning has to necessarily be inclusive of people and the masses as that's where the centre of focus should be. What we had in India was hardly ever planning. Yes, the idea initially based within the Mahalanobis Model was to focus on heavy industries for growth so that in the long run, there were enough consumer goods. But, in reality, instead of sectoral planning for faster growth, what we saw was just plain programming – in fact, programming for private sector growth.
The public sector in India was made a mode for private sector growth. And that's what the members of Planning Commission were doing – at the cost of the nation, national resources and subsidies, helping and plotting private sector growth. For example, SAIL sold steel to the TATAs at subsidized rates to promote growth of industries; and TATA in turn sold it in the market at market prices, leading to a situation of private profits at the cost of public losses. We deliberately made the public sector a loss making proposition to bolster the private sector in the country. Of course, that meant heavy kickbacks and extreme bureaucracy. These can only survive hand in hand in any case. After the job of destroying the public sector in India was complete, came the open era of selling off of these huge public assets to private hands in the name of "liberalization".
The talk of dismantling/rechristening the Planning Commission – indeed, that should have been the call of the day given it never really worked for the country. We needed a Planning Commission that put the country and its poor first. Every leader spoke of this, but ended up doing nothing; that was, till Modi came to power. During his very first speech from Red Fort, he announced that the Nehruvian era was over and with that, the Commission too.
His 2015 gift to the nation on new year's eve was the announcement of the dismantling of Planning Commission and the formation of NITI Ayog. While people think that the word Planning or Ayojana has got replaced by the word NITI (as in morals/policies), the reality is that NITI has a full form – National Institution for Transforming India Aayog. Strangely, in the urge to form a smart abbreviation, from the very beginning everything became amusing. We now have the terms "Institution" and "Commission" (Aayog) in the same name. Two words that can be used interchangeably and are superfluous together, have been forcefully placed together for an obvious play of words. The functioning of the Aayog, while retaining the same flavor of the Planning Commission, actually makes it worse than the Planning Commission. NITI Aayog has no powers to allocate funds. It doesn't have powers to influence the finance ministry over expenditures and deficits. Nor does it have the power to do a performance evaluation of various states on the effectiveness of implemented schemes. As it is, with the states getting a larger share of the tax pie, the role of the Center was already less. Plus, with lesser powers, NITI Aayog almost seems like a defunct version of an originally defunct body. This needs to change for real.
Of course, these are early days and it's a bit unfair to give a verdict that soon. But the initial impression I get isn't something exciting. It now remains to be seen if Modi will modi-fy NITI Aayog in reality or just let it remain a toothless body with only the name having "Transform India".