WHEN I first heard the policy pronouncement of the new government that the Planning Commission was going to be abolished, I felt like celebrating. Since the early 1960s when I joined the service, I have harboured a deep-rooted prejudice against this leviathan.
The reason was simple. Even a blind man with his eyes bandaged could plainly perceive the incandescent truth that the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police were the two draught animals who pulled the bullock-cart of peace and progress in the field. Yet the Planning Commission was totally blind to this reality. So much so, that the revenue and police were the only departments which did not have a Plan scheme to their name.
Resultantly, the patwari who had been around since Sher Shah Suri and Raja Todar Mal did not have a patwarkhana to run his office-cum -residence from. The most decrepit ramshackle huts were the police stations, which seemed to have existed since the Kali Yuga began. And the brand new buildings and gleaming vehicles belonged to the pampered sons-in-law of the Yojana Aayog, the Block Development Offices and the Irrigation Department.
As I progressed up the hierarchy, the sightlessness of the Planning Commission became even more evident. Whether required or not, there was always money available for Plan schemes. Literally, not a naya paisa was allotted to the non-Plan budget under which existing assets had to be manned, maintained and sustained. Very soon I joined a select band of officers who clamoured for the distinction between Plan and non-Plan expenditure to be abolished. Whenever I could, I diverted funds to the patwarkhanas and police stations.
When the government was annoyed with me for pleading the cause of Tata-Singapore Airlines, what better parking lot for me than a Principal Advisership in the Planning Commission? I looked around and found some of my best friends also cooling their heels as Principal Advisers. We were led by no less a personality than the redoubtable Naresh Chander Saxena, who was ranked as the topper of the 1964 batch. I spent one year of my vanvaas in dreaming up a scenario of an India minus the denizens of Yojana Bhavan.
The Deputy Chairman was Jaswant Singh, who was a most interesting conversationalist. He had a soft, husky voice which was orchestrated by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony while blue smoke rose in peaceful vertical streams towards the nearly invisible ceiling of a softly lit room. Although he was a retired army major, he did not possess the warlike demeanour of some mustachio’d generals, who engaged in slanging matches with their Pakistani counterparts on Arnab Goswami’s Newshour show. I suspect that Jaswant Singh was too gentlemanly to shout at the likes of Rabri Devi in the annual discussions with the States. His soft exterior encouraged me to present a blueprint for the abolition of the Planning Commission. Jaswant Singh did not bat an eyelid. That was 1999.
So when I heard the announcement by the new government that it was going to write finis to the Planning Commission, for a second I thought that someone had reactivated my 1999 paper. I waited anxiously for the contours of the new body to emerge, trying to imagine how the new babus would bring about cooperative federalism in this country. I wondered whether they would recall the criticism that all the previous regimes had buried fathoms deep – about the only constitutional body that could have ushered in cooperative federalism in this country, namely, the Inter State Council, while they tinkered around with an illegal enterprise called the Planning Commission, which had emerged from a mere resolution of the Government of India.
The suspense is over. People are bound to say that it is old wine in new bottles. There is no dearth of cagey critics in this country who will recall that the Janata government had replaced Indiraji’s Garibi Hatao programme alias Integrated Rural Development Programme alias India’s War on Poverty with the Hindutva-sounding Antyodaya programme. They will comment that the more things seem to change in Delhi, the more they remain the same!
They will refuse to see the absolutely novel features of the new incarnation. There used to be some Cabinet Ministers in the Commission. Now they are called ex-officio members. Full-time members have been reduced to two. Much of the work will be done by part-time members and short-term consultants, who will come and go. The Member Secretary has been rechristened Chief Executive Officer or CEO, thus giving the think-tank a corporate flavour. There used to be a National Development Council consisting of all the Chief Ministers. Now there will be regional meetings of the CMs of the BIMARU region, the CMs of the Northeastern region, the CMs of the Himalayan region, the CMs of the Southern region and the CMs of the Western region. They will focus on the problems of each region separately. That is “cooperative federalism” at last.
Alas! My Kashmiri genes rebel. I have essentially a very simple mind. I liked Modi’s simple solution to an age-old problem when he decreed that you can attest a document yourself; you need not hunt for a gazetted officer. Absolutely fine! I would have liked it even better if he had abolished the concept of the official gazette altogether. As also the concept of a gazetted officer!
I had sent a simple proposal to Narinderbhai. Reduce the number of gazetted holidays from 16 to three. Make it a six-day week. Do not let employees take their mobile phones to their tables. Don’t let them go for interminable cups of tea in the canteen. Serve the tea free, hot and steaming, at their work tables. These simple steps will raise the productivity of the babus by a factor of eight. Try it, Narinderbhai.
Administration is basically very simple. Take the question of a biometric identity card. There was a tussle between the MHA and the Planning Commission, between the Aadhaar and the National Population Register. Transfer the Aadhaar to the MHA. Let them merge the databases. This simple gambit will save thousands of crores of rupees. Try it, Mr Prime Minister.
The solutions are well known. What is missing is the action. Who does not know that if the third level of governance is established, benefits will start reaching the common man in the village and the town? Yet, only a handful of States have brought this revolution about on the ground.
Everyone knows that if you can guarantee the provision of about 50 basic services to the masses through legislation that mandates time limits to such provision on pain of penalties to be imposed on the babus who prevent such guaranteed supply, things will improve dramatically.
Everyone knows that if you construct small check dams, you can prevent soil erosion and raise the water levels and transform the productivity of agricultural operations.
Who does not know that a simple rule stating that a Chief Minister can appoint whosoever he wishes as the Chief Secretary but cannot remove him without an okay from a Civil Services Board, can galvanise the administration?
Millions of such simple totkaas lie buried in reports of Commissions and Committees. All we need is implementation. If the Niti Aayog selects only five such totkaas every month and reviews the implementation in two committees, one of Chief Secretaries for the States and one of Secretaries to the Government of India for the Central Government, that will be enough. There will be a revolution in the country.
Modi is a doer. I hope he reads gfiles and implements the ideas retired babus delineate without fear or favour every month.
For us Delhiwallahs, he has solved all the problems by the right choice of two stalwarts. The two major difficulties we face are traffic and sanitation. By choosing Crane Bedi as the Chief Minister-designate, he has solved the problem of traffic. By appointing Sindushree Khullar, the former NDMC chief, as the CEO of the Niti Aayog, he has ensured a Swachh Delhi.
What more can we ask for?
Endpiece: Now whether he calls it Niti Aayog or Atithi Aayog, where he can call his NRI friends for short-term consultancies over an extended holiday, it does not really matter.
MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India