Augustine Peter, an IES 1982 batch officer currently posted as Director General at the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC), talks in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
In what capacity do you currently serve with the IES?
I am currently Director General at the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC), in the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and responsible for administering subsidies on petroleum products – diesel, kerosene and LPG, keeping a track of and analysing price and market trends at the national and international levels in respect of oil and gas, especially crude and products. PPAC also projects demand, consumption and supply for crude and products and maintains a data base of the petroleum sector.
How do you see IES contribute to the growth of Indian economy?
The formation of IES was in the context of India launching herself on the path of economic development in the early 1950s. The economy has since traveled a long way passing through the phases of control, decontrol and economic liberalisation. Controls have been replaced by regulation in many areas, with all its attendant challenges. Competition is being pushed to the central stage, though currently with a number of limitations. The role of economists is ever growing.
Does final policy reflect on the quality of advice given by the IES?
Economic advice comes from different channels and in different contexts. IES officers may not be able to get their views heard at the highest level on some occasions. However, the silver lining is that the government system provides opportunities for officers at all levels to express their views. There are ministers who take the views of officers irrespective of their grade. One example in the current government is Union Finance P Chidambaram, under whom I had the opportunity to work. Your ability to argue out your case is what matters most.
Sometimes there could be poor government decisions in contrast to advice offered by you. Did you then feel frustrated?
Over time one learns to live with such experiences. Any officer who continues to hold a view that is not heeded by the government while taking decisions, would only find himself painted into a corner. Unless the decision is extremely retrograde and damaging India’s economic interests, there is no point continuing to resist such a policy change. However, the officer has opportunities to bring it to the notice of the political boss the advantages that would have accrued if his advice were heeded.
Does the advice reflect practical concerns or political ideology of the ruling party?
Decision making in a democratic set up is largely political in nature. Advice given has to keep in view the ideology of the government in power, coalition constraints, the manifestos of the parties supporting the government in power (in case of a coalition), the ability of the people of the country to absorb changes etc. No politician worth the name would appreciate any impractical but text book-wise sounds economic advice. That is why a successful government economist has to be normally more skillful than a professional economist. The same economist may have to come out with different solutions when different political parties are in power. In fact, there is no single economic path to development. Consistently following a path which has no inherent contradictions is what would help. Fortunately in recent years governments at the centre have been following economic policies broadly in the same direction.
How much of your inputs actually go into policy making?
The process of economic policy making is very complex and is based on data and economic insight. Inputs are like droplets. Most of the policies that are taken up for implementation may have been thought of at some time in the past. Many suggestions you make today may be judged to be too early for the country or may not be implementable at this point of time given the political, social or global environment. At a later date this may be taken up, may be by the same government or may by another government. The issue of FDI in retail, for example, has been in the making for a long time. Think of the Companies Act Amendment Bill. Many of the economic reforms that are pending approval have been thought of and mooted years back, in many cases by different political parties.
What improvements do you suggest for the IES?
IES officers have to learn to be more visible, by articulating their views within government as well as in academic and intellectual fora. Exposure to economic administration at the state and district level would be useful. There has, in fact, been demand from various states for the services of IES officers, which could not be met because of various reasons. States like Madhya Pradesh, Goa, UP, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been using the services of IES officers. The way forward lies in making IES an All India Service. This would enable making them available to state governments, the services of economists who have exposure to central government working as well. Representation of IES officers at senior levels in economic ministries with more responsibilities related to decision making would also need to be considered.