Recollections of a communicator: Nation looks forward to new incarnation of Planning Commission
The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a long discussion with eminent economists and intellectuals earlier this week, gives an indication that the present government does not want a white elephant in the shape of the Planning Commission, but would like to substitute it with an organization which would essentially be performing the broad objectives of 'planning'.
The new organization will have new blood and would be designed to give new direction and thought. It would try to strengthen federalism more with creative thinking on public-private partnership, optimum utilization of resources and give direction to state governments, as indicated by the Prime Minister in his Independence Day speech.
In my capacity as a communicator, I have had the opportunity to watch the Planning Commission from the beginning. During my college days, I had read that the first Five-Year-Plan dealt with the period from 1951 to 1956, with an outlay of Rs. 2069 crores, with emphasis on irrigation projects and community development. It was followed by the Second Plan with an outlay of around Rs. 4,800 crores, a figure that looks insignificant now. We were proud that the money was being spent on hydroelectric power projects and building of steel plants. The plants at Bhilai, Durgapur and Rourkela came up during those years and many of my classmates got jobs in those companies.
My first contact with an official of the Planning Commission was in 1958, when I was appointed as the Assistant Editor of the Sainik Samachar. We were producing a special edition of the journal for the Republic Day, and the Editor had given me an article written by Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, a member of the Commission. It was a 40-page article and had to be reduced to about six pages to fit into the Sainik Samachar. I spent a whole weekend reading and re-reading it and reduced it to around seven pages.
The Editor sent the edited article to P. C. Mahalanobis for approval. The very next day, the Editor told me that Mahalanobis wanted to see the person who had edited it. The Editor asked me to explain to Mr. Mahalanobis that while the article was very good, keeping the requirements of the journal, we had reduced its length and then apologize if he was not happy with the edited version and agree to make the necessary changes.
It was a winter evening in the first week of January that I was asked to see him. His house was adjacent to that of the Chief of Army Staff..
What happened when I met Mahalanobis completely disarmed me. He welcomed me into his study room, asked me to share a cup of tea, and told me that he wanted to see the person who had edited the manuscript sent by him which he called was a rambling piece! He appreciated my effort, saying that it was now a good, compact and readable article. He inquired about my educational background and asked me to keep interest in the subject of economic planning in India.
He told me that in a country like ours where resources were limited, we had to adopt statistical models in planning for the development of the country. He spent nearly an hour telling me what the Planning Commission and the Indian Statistical Institute were doing for the country.
My next contact with the Planning Commission was in the sixties as a reader of the Yojana, which was edited by H.Y Sharada Prasad, who had followed Khushwant Singh . The objective of the journal was to convince the readers of the need for planning in a country like India that had a huge population that lived below the poverty line. Soon after, I was transferred out of Delhi and lost touch with the economic planners of the country. When I returned to Delhi, I saw a Planning Commission that had grown to huge proportions.
It was also becoming a place for transferring heavyweights from the government. Two instances that come to my memory were D. P. Dhar and P. N Haksar, the latter who fell out of favour with Sanjay Gandhi.
In 1985, when I became the Principal Information Officer of the Government of India, it became one of my duties to attend meetings of the Planning Commission whenever the Prime Minister chaired it, particularly to give his approval to Five-Year-Plans, or annual Plans. I also attended the National Development Council meetings.
Broadly the Planning Commission drew up the Five-Year-Plan, a blueprint for economic development based on the resources that the country could mobilise. It was approved by the Prime Minister and later by the National Development Council, in which all the States of the country gave their reaction. The State Plans, which had to be approved by the Planning Commission, could be controversial as the amount of central grant depended on them. Often, State governments have complained that they were treated in a step-motherly manner. The Planning Commission also had a say in approving the policies and programmes of various ministries of the government.
I specially remember a meeting of the Planning Commission presided over by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Secretary was C.G. Somiah, who presented the draft of the Seventh Plan in 1985. It was a surprise to all of us when Rajiv Gandhi said that the draft document did not make sense. Rajiv Gandhi was keen to usher India into the twentieth century and asked the Planning Commission to redraft the document with emphasis on modern technology and effort to make India catch up with the technological revolution. My recollection is that under the Seventh Plan the country strove to bring about a self-sustained economy.
Following that meeting, it became a drill, that I as Principal Information Officer, had to be present when the plans of the Information Ministry were being discussed. I was also involved in the meetings during the short tenures of Prime Ministers V. P. Singh and Chandrashekar when the country only had annual plans.
I used to visit the Commission when Ramakrishna Hegde became the Deputy Chairman in 1989. We used to have long chats about the political situation in the country. He would tell me that it would take nearly two decades for the country to have a political party, which commanded a majority in Parliament. I remembered him when Narendra Modi assumed office with a clear majority. Hegde was prescient.
Over the years, the Planning Commission has fallen into a routine. It had also become a parking ground for officers who were not wanted in various ministries, retired bureaucrats and a place where assignments have been given to academics and others to make recommendations.
For over a decade, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was earlier in the Finance Ministry and in the Prime Minister's Office, has headed it. Due to his grasp of the Indian economy, he was considered the last word in 'Planning'.
One has to watch who will have the last word in the new organization. The country is looking forward to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to infuse new blood into the new organization and give it the mandate to give new direction.
Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer of the Government of India. he can be reached on his e-mail -- firstname.lastname@example.org
(Posted on 28-08-2014)