Interview: Ajay Chhibber

‘The Planning Commission has become a hindrance’

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Ajay Chhibber. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Ajay Chhibber, Director General, Independent Evaluation Office, laid the ground for the dissolution of the Planning Commission. He is an eminent economist with international experience. Prior to being appointed the IEO’s DG, he was based in New York as United Nations Assistant Secretary General and Assistant Administrator at the United Nations Development Programme. Before that he had worked at the World Bank for 25 years on a range of development programmes in Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia and the Pacific. He was the lead author of an internationally acclaimed work on governance at the World Bank, the 1997 “World Development Report on the Role of the State”. He has also written many other books and articles in international journals. He spoke to Frontline about what is wrong with the Planning Commission and what can be done about it. Excerpts from the interview.

The press release put out by the Planning Commission on August 12, 2013, the day you joined as DG, IEO, said the IEO would conduct independent evaluation of Plan programmes, especially flagship programmes, and assess their effectiveness, relevance and impact. What made you evaluate the Planning Commission itself?

I have been appointed as an independent evaluator by the Government of India, with full authority to evaluate any scheme, programme or project, without the government interfering in any manner whatsoever. True, my first two tasks were to assess the Public Distribution System (PDS) and maternal and neo-natal mortality rates. We later added an evaluation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) also. I am just doing the job assigned to me by the government.

But what made you evaluate the Planning Commission itself?

First of all, let me make it very clear. There is nothing personal in this. I am just doing my job as an independent evaluator for which I am authorised. The Planning Commission was created in 1950 through a mere Cabinet resolution. It has no Constitutional sanctity. It came into being through a mere executive order and then it just continued to grow, taking over jobs assigned to other institutions like the Finance Commission. For example, allocation of funds to the States was the job of the Finance Commission, sanctified by the Constitution, but the Planning Commission appropriated this task to itself. Because of a different historical context, it even got into micromanagement of devolution of funds, how schemes should be run and even to the extent of how the States should spend those funds.

When we started looking at the schemes, and travelled to the States, we realised that the States were not very happy with the way such schemes were designed Centrally and literally pushed down their throats. The States were made to follow the “one size fits all” theory of the Planning Commission for the implementation of the schemes. The States wanted more flexibility; they wanted freedom to design their own schemes, the way they should be implemented and the way funds meant for various schemes should be spent. They wanted to experiment with new ideas, new ways of implementing ideas. At the moment they are denied this freedom.

We realised that the real problem in schemes not benefiting people lay not so much in the schemes as such but in the way they were approached by the States. We realised that different approaches should have been adopted by different States, which, at the moment, is not available. The Planning Commission did try to inject some flexibility, but that did not have much impact. Also, the majority of the staff at the Planning Commission are generalists, not domain experts, which made it frustrating for the States to explain different issues. That is when we started looking at the Planning Commission itself. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too said that we needed to reform the Planning Commission. So we started looking at the historical background, why it was created and whether it was still serving the purpose for which it was created.

We realised that the Planning Commission was initially envisaged only as a think tank, but over a period of time it appropriated to itself the work of other institutions and started the tight-fisted approach of allocating funds between the Centre and the States and among different Central Ministries. This was a task which should have been done by the Finance Commission and the Finance Ministry, for which they are mandated, but the Planning Commission appropriated this job to itself. I have explained in the report how and why this happened and have recommended that they should just be a think tank, thinking big for the long term, generate fresh ideas, look at innovations, suggest systemic reforms and not get involved in the humdrum of routine administration.

There have been attempts in the past to reform the Commission, but nothing much has changed. Do you think it will be different this time? Do you think some genuine change will actually come about or will it be old wine in a new bottle again? The same mechanism, with a different name?

I think , this time it may be different. Maybe this is an idea whose time has come. I am waiting. Besides, there is a general realisation that the distinction between Plan and non-Plan funding makes no sense now. The distinction should be between current and capital expenditure. Now we have arrived at a situation where the Planning Commission has become more of a hindrance than a help in development. There is a drastic need for infusing some fresh new blood in the Planning Commission and get rid of the old rusted system where tomes of files breed cockroaches and keep gathering dust, with nobody even interested in looking at them; where moth-eaten heaps of reports keep lying for years, with nobody ever needing them. It is good the Prime Minister has also felt the need for change and, hopefully, something good will come out of it.

Since the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) is also an institution which evaluates government schemes and programmes, don’t you think there is an overlapping of areas between the IEO and the CAG?

No, there is no overlapping. Our work begins where the CAG’s ends. The CAG looks at the input and output of funding. We look at what happens after the outflow of funds. Our job is more people-centric; we try and find out how people have been impacted by these schemes, how they have benefited or not benefited them, and if not, then what are the reasons for that. In fact, we complement what the CAG does.

Do you really believe that a humongous institution like the Planning Commission can be abolished, as you have suggested in your report?

There is no denying the fact that it needs to be reformed. But since efforts to reform it have failed in the past for whatever reasons and bureaucratic inertia has seized it so badly that it is impossible to reform it, it should just be abolished and a new, leaner commission, Reforms and Solutions Commission, should be put up in its place. This was my personal opinion at that time and I am happy that the government has agreed with it.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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