Transforming the transformation vehicle

The recent change in guard at the NITI Aayog augurs well for the country, with the new leadership’s vision closely aligned with the transformative potential of the body’s charter.

Transforming the transformation vehicle
The problem, as it appears, is that it is yet not able to offer a coherent, consultative and strategic outlook for India.

By Pradeep S Mehta & Abhishek Kumar

Since Suman Bery took charge as the new vice-chairman (VC) of the NITI Aayog, many views have come about on the role of NITI. The authors of this piece also wrote one when there was a change of guard in 2017. Nitin Desai, one of the most respectable voices on public policy, has also expressed the need for a grand development strategy for India that can be steered by NITI. He has even suggested specifics for such a grand strategy that should include uniform growth, employment creation as a dominant goal, clarity on the concept of self-reliance (vertically integrated versus larger role in global supply chain), choices on investment and linkages with global actors, and environmental management, amongst other things. One can’t agree more. We are sure that even Bery is in agreement.

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The question is, why does the apex public policy body of India need to be reminded of such obvious things?

To be fair, NITI may have been focusing on all or some of these things. The problem, as it appears, is that it is yet not able to offer a coherent, consultative and strategic outlook for India. In the corridors of the Aayog, it is perhaps easy to feel overwhelmed and pleased with the responsibility of thinking for India on diverse domains, and therefore easy to be conceited with the progress. Unfortunately, the reality does not accompany the conceit.

For one, it is not easy to articulate policies for a country as diverse as ours without setting up robust processes of consultations with states, institutions and organisations at different levels of federal polity. Incidentally, the charter of NITI was created to facilitate precisely this.

To foster cooperative federalism and to achieve the goal of transforming India for the better, the charter of NITI Aayog—amongst other things—seeks to create structured support initiatives and mechanisms with the states; develop mechanisms to formulate credible plans across levels of government; create collaborative communities with think tanks, research institutions and experts et al. As per the charter, NITI is also meant to offer itself as a platform for resolution of inter-sectoral and inter-departmental issues in order to accelerate the implementation of India’s development agenda through a coherent and cogent approach.

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Alas, any substantive progress on these envisaged objectives has remained a pipe dream. It is important to emphasise that the problem-solving abilities of NITI for the disparate issues India faces will greatly benefit from such processes. In fact, observed closely, a large part of the charter of NITI envisages it to become a ‘process and facilitation commission’ rather than a ‘solutions commission’.

In that sense, the charter seeks to do what the India Backbone Implementation Network, conceived under the erstwhile Planning Commission, was meant to do. It was to systematically promote capabilities that ensured coordination, collaboration, and implementation on issues, projects and policy within India. Since no single entity could provide all the skills and knowledge, IBIN was designed as a network that would cross-share and cross-link information by leveraging partner organisations and expertise.

Since the ultimate boss of NITI is the prime minister himself, the charter of NITI could be read as one that is supposed to embellish that office as the office of a true statesman. Bery wrote a piece recently on how he sees the role of NITI and his role as its vice-chairman.

It is heartening to see that seven years and two VCs later, the chords being struck by Bery are perhaps most in harmony with NITI’s charter than ever in its short existence since 2015. Ahead of the Governing Council meeting of NITI and after meeting all the chief secretaries from all states, Bery has laid out his thoughts for NITI in the form of seven propositions. These include highlighting the importance of dialogue with states towards India’s growth agenda; need to improve the performance of laggard states; bolstering social outcomes along with economic progress; recalibrating the process of growth from the grassroots rather than top down; better manage urbanisation to improve quality of life metrics; offering NITI as a platform to enable cross-sharing of good practices, insights and perspectives on various issues; and mainstreaming climate action. In another interview elsewhere, Bery had hinted that NITI will also exercise required rigour to help India better manage the many uncertainties surrounding the world.

As public policy practitioners and observers of planning, we find the thoughts of the new VC on NITI closely resonate with the outcome of the great debate that authors of this piece had curated with 89 thought-leaders from around the country, now published as an e-book (bit.ly/3SpLZLF). The debate in a nutshell highlights that the reason why all economic philosophies have failed globally is because they have operated in a paradigm where wealth accumulation and distribution has been a top-down phenomenon. If we are to succeed then the paradigm needs to reverse. Lastly, if there is a singular pivot around which NITI can orient all it efforts, it may be to catalyse a National Employment Policy at the intersection of industrial, trade and competition policies. Remember, that NITI is an abbreviation for National Institute for Transforming India.

The authors are respectively, secretary general of CUTS International, and partner, Indicc Associates.

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