The Planning Commission's decision to disband all the consultative groups, in response to the Left parties' opposition to the inclusion in them of members representing foreign institutional interests, jeopardises the process of consultation itself.in New Delhi
THE dissolution of all the 19 consultative groups of the Planning Commission, including those with representatives of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), McKinsey and Boston Consultancy, might have settled for the time being the controversy generated by the Left parties' opposition to the formal representation given to foreign agencies in an important government body. The consultative groups were set up to seek expert opinion of the performance of the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) and to undertake a mid-course correction to incorporate in the plan the vision of the Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Allaince (UPA) government. In the wake of the September 30 decision to dissolve the groups, the Planning Commission announced that it was reverting to the old practice of "informally" and "separately" consulting individuals.
But the issue remains far from "resolved", as the Planning Commission and its Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia would like one to believe.
The Left parties, who put up a principled resistance to the formal presence of foreign agencies, are not happy with the government's decision to dissolve all the consultative groups. They say that they only demanded the removal of the representatives of the foreign agencies. Besides, the government has not explained how it will go about the "consulting process" now.
"The issue is still to be sorted out. How can the Planning Commission say it is a closed chapter now?" said D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He told Frontline: "The government needs to spell out how it intends to go about the process of consultation, how it proposes to review the Tenth Five-Year Plan and how it will select the individuals to be consulted."
Gurudas Dasgupta, a CPI leader and Member of Parliament, said disbanding the groups was a step in the wrong direction. "In order to correct one wrong, another wrong has been committed by excluding economists of a larger spectrum. They [the government] have closed the door for wider consultation and refused to take the views of different categories of people. This will not strengthen but weaken the approach of the Planning Commission in dealing with basic human problems," Dasgupta said. He said the planning process had failed to solve the basic problems of the people and there was a need for wider consultation and introspection. But the government had decided to stick to the same old unilateral functioning of the Planning Commission, Dasgupta said.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) too expressed reservations about the dissolution of all the groups. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said: "It is for them [Planning Commission] to decide how they would go about the consultation process, but they cannot bypass the Left in any appraisal of the Plan process." According to Yechury, whatever the modus operandi adopted for consultations, "the issues related with appraisal of the Plan process will have to come before the Left". He said there were parliamentary committees and other more important forums where the government could bring the issues for a discussion.
The Left parties expressed their dissatisfaction with the latest decision at a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on October 1. The meeting, originally called to brief the Left leaders about the Prime Minister's foreign visit, was attended by CPI(M) leaders Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader Raja, Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) leader Abani Roy and All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) leader Debabrata Biswas.
Apparently, Manmohan Singh assured the Left leaders that some method of consultation would be worked out. "The Prime Minister said he will look into the matter in due course of time," Raja said. Abani Roy said that though he was "satisfied" with the steps taken so far, "it was the Prime Minister's responsibility to see to it that the issues in the Common Minimum Programme were addressed during the appraisal of the Plan process".
OPINIONS vary on the larger issue of the modus operandi to be adopted for a review of the planning process. One school of thought believes that since the Planning Commission has always been "informally" and "separately" consulting "outside" experts, a formal position for them in the body would help to maintain the discussions in the public domain. Besides, it would bring a "non-government" perspective to the review. Montek Singh Ahluwalia represented this school. In a letter to the Left leaders, Ahluwalia said: "Multilateral institutions in any case interact regularly with Central and State government agencies and this has in the past also included the Planning Commission... . However, in these interactions the views of these experts are expressed in a non-public discussion... by including their representatives in a larger public forum their views and perspectives can be subjected to wider scrutiny including critical evaluation by non-government experts."
He added: "For the limited purpose of undertaking the mid-term appraisal of the Plan, we decided that it is necessary to obtain views and perceptions of the effectiveness of Plan programmes and policies from non-government observers". Ahluwalia said that the "Planning Commission cannot do justice to the mid-term appraisal if it relies solely on the work of civil servants in the commission commenting on the work of other civil servants in the Ministries".
The other school of thought, which includes a section of Left-leaning economists, feels that the foreign agencies need not be present on the official committees because it amounted to "undermining, not just de facto but de jure, the autonomy and sovereignty of the Indian state". Some of the economists, Prabhat Patnaik, Utsa Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh, C.P. Chandrashekhar and T.M. Thomas Isaac, all of whom were on various consultative groups threatened to resign in protest against the inclusion of foreign representatives. In a letter to Ahluwalia on September 21, they said that the Planning Commission was not a "debating society", but an organ of the sovereign Indian state and any such organ must necessarily be "exclusionary" in the sense that it should "exclude personnel owing allegiance to or under the control/patronage of a foreign sovereign state". They said it was universally recognised that the World Bank, the ADB and the consultancy agencies were under the patronage of foreign countries, primarily the United States, and their inclusion in a Plan panel would undermine the Indian state's sovereignty.
"The government has always been consulting outside experts. Why institutionalise it now?" asked CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan. He said: "After all, everyone knows they [the World Bank and others] have their own agenda. Ahluwalia himself has said so. Then why have them in the official bodies?" When asked whether the Left parties would withdraw support to the government on the issue, Bardhan said: "No, we will not withdraw support. But we will ensure that they cannot ignore us. As long as the government keeps the Left's concerns in mind, it will last."
The matter was almost settled on September 17 when CPI(M) leaders Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet met UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. They expressed satisfaction over the response of the UPA leaders. Later, the issue was complicated when Ahluwalia said in London that the foreign body representatives would continue. Reacting angrily to Ahluwalia's observation, Jyoti Basu said in Kolkata: "He [Montek] is a World Bank man and he must mend his ways." Officials in the Prime Minister's office confirmed that he was upset by the controversy and held discussions with Ahluwalia to find an "honourable way out".