The Planning Commission played a major role in policymaking till the 1991 reforms. In the 1970s it attracted top economists and policymaking was in the most capable hands. But after the reforms, many felt that such top-down centralised planning had outlived its usefulness.
Hence the prime minister’s decision to seek radical institutional change is timely. The critical question is how to replace the Planning Commission with a new institution to manage the still considerable government spending on development. There has been some talk of creating a ‘think-tank’ of eminent economists and other domain experts. But lack of expertise has never really been a problem in India. The essential challenge has been one of implementation and monitoring, and being able to understand grassroots problems related to implementing plans at the local levels.
What is required is a grassroots stakeholder-based policy development process that makes a comprehensive effort to incorporate ideas from the field from state governments, businesses, civil society groups and sector experts. Even more importantly, to develop a mechanism for constant bottom-up vigilance on the actual implementation of policies or development programmes in a manner that allows for flexibility to adjust to local requirements. The key concept here is decentralisation of policy-making through stakeholder consultation, through monitoring of implementation at the grassroots level involving non-governmental stakeholders, and through institutionalised inter-departmental coordination.
This article suggests three objectives for the new institution, and for a related institutional mechanism that will evolve a 21st century paradigm for development strategy.
Replacing the top-down model
A major challenge in policy formulation today is that multiple stakeholder perspectives, based on grassroots experience, are often missing. The world over, it is the ability to understand the needs of all users and stakeholders in government services that leads to successful projects, not planning by a few ‘experts’. This has been the missing link in the chain for India.
The current mechanisms for stakeholder consultations are mostly adhoc. They depend on the level of efforts that bureaucrats in individual ministries make in collecting and incorporating such feedback. The new institution can play the lead role in bringing together central, state and local government and departments, as well as private sector and civil society stakeholders. This would ensure that policies and projects for development have the best chance of success due to a bottom-up policy design that incorporates micro-level operational realities.
The ability and quality of implementation of development initiatives remains India’s Achilles’ heel. A part of the problem lies in the capacity of the government to constantly monitor policy or development initiatives at the ground level. However, relevant stakeholders and sectoral experts at the ground level can provide practical and effective feedback that would allow government to quickly identify problem areas and rectify them, thus ensuring that ambitious plans are actually making significant changes to lives. Read full story
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