Monday, January 26, 2015

Role and Functions of NITI Aayog / M Govinda Rao

1 Demise of the Planning Commission
There have been wide-ranging discussions on the role and remit of the new institution to replace the Planning Commission ever since the prime minister in his 2014 Independence Day address declared that the Planning Commission would be replaced by a new institution. In the cabinet resolution passed on 7 January, the government has come out with the broad contours of the new institution, National Institution for Transforming India (NITI). The remit and functioning of NITI Aayog will become clearer as it evolves over time. This note analyses the possible role it can take and the challenges it is likely to face in carrying out remit assigned to it.
Not many will shed tears on the abolition of the Planning Commission. In fact, the previous prime minister himself had called for redefining its role to suit changing realities. The planning exercise that was followed had hardly any relevance for the market economy. It did very little to plan and implement even public sector investments for infrastructure and its role in promoting public-private partnership was mostly seen as obstructive. The whole exercise of giving approvals to state plans smacked of dispensing patronage. The proliferation of various centrally-sponsored schemes (CSS) with “one size fits all” design and conditionality contributed to severe distortions in public spending. Often, the Planning Commission came up with discretionary transfers to states to meet non-plan revenue deficits negating the norms set by the Finance Commissions. The presence of a member of the Planning Commission as a part-time member of the Finance Commission did very little to correct this anomaly.
There were two contradictions between the Indian development strategy and the institutional framework constraining economic environment over the years. The first is the contradiction between the planning framework and the role of the market. The initial years after Independence required a planning frame to allocate the low levels of savings to invest in much needed infrastructure and priority sectors to overcome severe infrastructure deficits and the lack of competitiveness of the economy. However, the framework failed to adapt to the transition after the liberalising reforms were initiated. With fiscal constraints becoming more and more binding and political economy factors crowding out infrastructure spending with subsidies and transfers, the planning exercise lost much of its relevance.
The second contradiction was between the centralised command over resource allocation and the developmental role of the states in a federal polity. The end of single party rule and the emergence of coalition governments and regional parties as members of the central coalition brought to the fore the contradiction between centralised planning in a federal framework. The response of the central government was to further centralise even by intruding into the legislative domains of the states by various means including the proliferation of CSS. The consequence of the above was that the two important sources of economic dynamism, the private sector and the states, had to function in a constrained environment.
The architecture, engineering and management aspects of the new institution, NITI Aayog, will have to be crafted carefully, if it has to serve as an institution to impart dynamism to the developmental process in a harmonious manner. First, economic liberalisation has created a vibrant private sector and the new institution should assist in policymaking to enable private entrepreneurs to unleash their animal spirits and not to constrain them. Second, horizontal and vertical competition in a multilevel fiscal system can be an important source of economic dynamism so long as a certain measure of “competitive equality” and “cost-benefit appropriability” are ensured and predatory competition is prevented. “Laboratory federalism” can be a source of innovations, imitations and learning and facilitating this is important. Third, coordination costs are higher when there are coalition governments and the parties in power in the states are different from that of the centre. There is an urgent need for an institution to promote healthy intergovernmental competition while preventing the “race to the bottom”. All these underline the need for an institution to promote “Coasean bargains” in the spirit of cooperative federalism and ensure resolution of issues when such bargains fail.
2 NITI Aayog: Role and Remit
The cabinet resolution lists 13 different tasks to it which may be grouped under four major heads, namely: (i) fostering cooperative federalism by providing structured support to states on a continuous basis; (ii) formulation of a strategic vision and long-term policies and programme framework both for the macroeconomy and for different sectors; (iii) acting as a knowledge and innovation hub and providing research inputs by undertaking and accessing globally available research; and (iv) providing a platform for interdepartmental coordination. Each of these functions is discussed here in some detail.
(i) Cooperative Federalism: Platform for Interface between the Centre and States: The most important responsibility of NITI Aayog relates to promoting “…cooperative federalism through structured support initiatives and mechanisms with the States on a continuous basis”. The Seventh Schedule to the Constitution demarcates the legislative domains and functional responsibilities of the union and states in terms of union, state and concurrent subjects. However, there is considerable overlap in the functions requiring coordination between the union and the states and among the states inter se. Carrying out stable and sustainable developmental agenda requires fostering the spirit of cooperation and cementing the federal structure.
The areas of coordination needed are many and some of them may be listed here. First, there is considerable overlap in carrying out legislative and executive functions in concurrent subjects. Recent years have shown the need for cooperation in areas such as energy and environment, education and poverty alleviation where the need for coordinated action and speedy decisions are critical for pursuing the developmental agenda. Second the union government may have to intervene in the national interest even if they are in the State List or Concurrent List. There may be some public services in the State List, which, for reasons of nationwide externalities or for redistribution require coordinated action to ensure minimum standards throughout the country. The examples include healthcare, urban development and poverty alleviation. In these cases, the state governments are the partners in achieving a common goal. Third, In the case of union subjects too, the states may be involved in implementation as agencies due to their proximity to the people. In addition, NITI can facilitate exchange of information and experiences and promote heathy intergovernmental competition through monitoring and regulation.
The most important issue which the NITI Aayog will have to deal with is the rationalisation of CSS as there is considerable resentment by the states on them. In 2011, there were over 147 schemes which have since been consolidated into 66, but a close examination shows that these have been retained as sub-schemes even in the new arrangement. The “one-size fits all” design of the schemes do not take account of varying local conditions and institutions, The large counterpart/matching fund requirements distort priorities of the states, conditionalities in availing the grants make them restrictive and the final distribution of transfers is very different from the original design. Finally, when the schemes are discontinued, they leave large committed liabilities on the states.
There is certainly a case for having specific purpose transfers for ensuring minimum standards of services which are considered to be of national importance. Given the collaborative nature of such schemes, they should be designed and implemented in the spirit of cooperative federalism. The schemes should be holistic with scope for flexibility in implementation depending on the varying local conditions and they should be limited in number (not more than 10). They should have considerable scope for flexibility in implementation. The new institution could provide a platform for designing the schemes, implementation systems, monitoring and evaluating them in a collaborative framework.
In order to enable NITI Aayog to play a constructive role in fostering cooperation, it is necessary to place the Inter-State Council, properly empowered under Article 263 of the Constitution, in the Aayog. This institution should be the nodal agency for negotiation, discussion, bargaining and resolution of all major issues. It should have the required expertise on intergovernmental relations, fiscal federalism and constitutional law.
(ii) Strategic Planning: One of the major tasks assigned to NIti Aayog is strategic planning at both macro and sectoral levels. Perspective planning helps to make projections on the macro variables and keep the policy perspective in view. The strategy and policies required to improve the standard of living of the projected population and improve human development to empower the people to productively engage them in economic activities over a long-term horizon are important. These should be constantly revisited to ensure their relevance.
The cabinet resolution also speaks about planning at the grass-roots level which implies that the exercise of medium-term planning could be continued, but in a different manner. It could be indicative planning to provide satisfactory levels of social and physical infrastructure for meeting the growing needs of the economy, with the roles of public and private sectors clearly defined. Grass-roots planning entails building up of the plan right from the village level based on the resource envelop, with each higher level aggregating the plans and adding the investment requirements for the category. In other words, the planning should be built right from the village, block and district levels and these should be harmonised with planning at the state level. Similarly, national planning should be the consolidation of state-level plans along with the planning infrastructure and service requirements for the country as a whole worked out at the union level. NITI can provide a framework for preparing the plans to the states and the latter, in turn, to the lower levels of government. It should also have a unit to advise and guide if any state is in need of such assistance.
(iii) Innovation and Knowledge Hub: Closely aligned to strategic planning is the role of NITI Aayog as a think tank facilitating partnerships between the stakeholders. Formulation of strategic vision and policies and programmes aligned to it as well as initiating and monitoring them requires state of the art research, technology upgradation and capacity building. As a major think tank of the government working on various developmental policies, it should not only have basic research capabilities but also should access and outsource research on relevant subjects globally. It should have a strong data bank consolidating data and information on economic, demographic, geographic and social variables relevant for research and policy. Among other functions, the institution should also provide a platform for experience sharing among the states.
(iv)Coordination: The fourth important task of the Aayog is to ensure inter-governmental and interdepartmental coordination. The disastrous consequences of lack of coordination between the infrastructure, including environmental, ministries on economic growth were clearly evident in the last years of the previous government.
3 Conclusions
The cabinet resolution lays down only the broad framework for the Aayog. The effectiveness of the NITI Aayog in transforming India will depend upon the clarity in the functions assigned, the status and power given and the quality of the people who will steer the institution. In fact, the first Aayog will have a tremendous responsibility of carving out a niche for itself, setting the pace and steering the transformation.
Thus, the effectiveness of NITI will depend on how it charts out a course for itself. Despite the claims of a marked departure from the past, the institution has to function in the prevailing milieu and deal with the burden of legacy. The important question is whether the Aayog will have influence when it does not have the power to give grants and when it does not have the powers to make plan allocations to different ministries and departments.
The abolition of the Planning Commission paves the way for restoring the role of the Finance Commission to assess the total requirements of the states in the revenue account without making a distinction between plan and non-plan spending. However, the Finance Commission does not have a comparative advantage in recommending specific purpose transfers unless it is made a permanent body. Of course, the constitutional provision does not require it to be a temporary body – Article 280 simply states that the commission should be appointed every five years or earlier; the appointed commission can continue until the new commission is appointed. However, so long as the Finance Commission continues to be a temporary body, the NITI Aayog will have a role in designing and implementing these programmes.
The legacy issues do not end merely with the abolition of the Planning Commission. There are parallel institutions in the states and it is important to transform them to meet the new requirements. Similarly, the Constitution requires the establishment of district planning committees and metropolitan planning committees. Their role in the new environment needs to be specified. Although the cabinet resolution states that NITI Aayog will facilitate grass-roots planning, how exactly this will be carried forward needs to be seen.
The success of the institution in achieving interministerial, interdepartmental coordination will depend on the trust and cooperation it receives from them and the harmony with which the Aayog and various ministries work. There could be tensions between the technocrats in the Aayog and various ministers on the one hand, and between the technocrats and bureaucrats on the other. There is also the danger of bureaucratisation of the Aayog. Similarly, success in fostering cooperative federalism will depend on the trust of and cooperation from the states. In particular, the first Aayog will have a tremendous task of shaping the character and charting a course to make it an important institution in Indian federal polity to transform India.
M Govinda Rao ( was a Member of the Fourteenth Finance Commission; he was earlier Director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.

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