It was a year when the Narendra Modi government officially buried the 60-plus years-old Planning Commission and replaced it with a NITI (National Institution of Transforming India) Aayog. The latter has been billed as an institution of change and one which furthers Modi’s stated idea of cooperative federalism. Chief ministers are part of its governing council and it spent much of 2015 in setting the house in order. As it enters a second year of operation, economists and policy watchers feel though it has done some things right, it can at best be described as a work-in-progress. Things have moved in the NITI but sometimes not at the desired pace. It got a third full-time member only after almost eight months of operation. “The charter given to the Aayog was very good, very much in line with what we wanted to do with the Planning Commission. But, to change an institution so radically is difficult and requires leadership with the requisite skills,” Arun Maira, a former member of the Planning Commission (PC) and ex-chief of Boston Consulting Group India, told Business Standard. Maira wrote a book on his tenure in the PC, titled An upstart in government: Journeys of change and learning. He’s written on how former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the PC’s deputy chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, always talked of reforming the body but never implemented this in letter or spirit. On demands that NITI be given more powers to make it relevant, Maira said giving institutions more powers without the requisite capabilities is bad for governance.
Saumitra Chaudhuri, another former member of the PC and the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council, says creating a new organisation is a big challenge and now that it had gone through the birth pangs, NITI should play a more meaningful role.
"The Commission did a reasonably good job in acting as platform and voice for various ministries and states. NITI should now do this, as there is no dearth of people in the government who can perform the role of think-tank," he said.
Sudha Pillai, a former member-secretary of the PC, agrees that in the past year, the Aayog has somewhat lacked in acting as a voice or championing the cause of central ministries, either with the finance ministry or the Prime Minister's Office, though it has performed admirably as a platform for interaction between Centre and states.
The sub-groups of chief ministers on revamping of centrally sponsored schemes (CSS), each headed by a CM, is a case in point. "I do like the process in which NITI facilitated in setting up a committee of CMs to revamp the CSS. But, in other areas, I feel it is much of work-in-progress," said Pillai.
Some are more sceptical. "I do not expect much to happen from NITI Aayog in the coming year, though it is slightly premature to judge it. But, most officers consider NITI Aayog a punishment posting and without good support staff, you cannot function," said N C Saxena, a former secretary to the PC.
Aayog vice chairman Arvind Panagariya told PTI that in 2016, the body would try and build the think-tank function of the institution more effectively. Now that its status in the government is clear, it should have no difficulty in playing a more meaningful role in shaping the country's future.