Reluctant reformers

69ArunMaira Arun Maira | Aayush Goel

In his new book, former Planning Commission member Arun Maira talks about the system that shackled him

The Planning Commission, now reborn as NITI Aayog, doesn’t usually make for interesting reading. The idea that planning can bring about change—with five year plans, red tape and bureaucracy—is a romantic one. Arun Maira’s ringside view of the affairs may not be the stuff that thrillers are made of, but the facts are starker than fiction. He writes frankly about a chance to make a difference that never was, of the frustration of working within a system and the truth about planning—that sometimes systems are hard to change. And sometimes, even with good intentions and the blessings of a prime minister (Manmohan Singh), the one-size-fits-all way of functioning doesn’t work. For the first time, this is an account of an insider, an apolitical well-meaning man, who reluctantly allocates blame for why things went wrong in India under UPA 2.

Extracts: Dr Manmohan Singh met the Planning Commission, of which he was the chairman, only once or twice a year. The meetings were short, never more than an hour and half, and very formal. The Members were seated in their order of seniority, which was the date on which they had joined the Commission. Each was expected to speak for six or seven minutes in turn though some would take longer. The prime minister would ask some questions directly to the Members, though not often. Having heard all, the prime minister would make brief concluding observations.

Narendra Modi... was openly critical of the shallowness of the participation in the meetings of the National Development Council, and the arrogance he perceived in the annual meetings of the chief ministers with the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

In the first months of 2014, the chief ministers of the states came for their last round of meetings to have their annual plans approved by the Planning Commission.

.... Montek Ahluwalia, asked Mr Modi the question that he had asked all the chief ministers. The UN had recently published statistics of the numbers of malnourished children in the world and India had come out very poorly, as it had for many years. Montek’s point was that the statistics about India were a few years old and India must have made progress since then. He was compiling the latest numbers of the actual status on the ground from the states so that the Government of India could counter the poor impression created by the UN report.... Mr Modi said that he would have the numbers sent to Montek immediately after the meeting.

.... Two Members contested some information presented in the Gujarat video, saying that the Planning Commission had different information.

Mr Modi turned to Montek. He said that it was odd that, on one hand, Montek wanted the state government’s information to know what was really happening on the ground, and on the other hand, members of the Planning Commission did not trust that information and said they had better information! ‘In which case,’ he said, ‘you should know what the state of malnutrition is and should have no need to ask the chief ministers.’

I experienced such resistance within the Planning Commission.... When I tried to explain the virtues of modern electronic communications to the Secretary of the Planning Commission, she was amused by my innocence of how the government functions.

An Upstart in Government

The Planning Commission had attempted to change itself a few times before and had failed to make it, as the prime minister had warned me. Therefore, its staff would be sceptical of another attempt to bring about change.

The change in the Planning Commission could not be implemented fully because its leadership did not demonstrate that it was committed to it. The deputy chairman was a reluctant reformer.

An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning
By Arun Maira
Published by Rupa Publications India
Price Rs.535
Pages 236

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