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An Upstart In Government: In conversation with Arun Maira

Palki S Upadhyay palkisu

Updated: October 2, 2015, 5:57 PM IST
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It was scrapped a year back. It was called out-of-date and out of sync. It has long been replaced by the Niti Aayog. Why then, would anyone read a book on the Planning Commission of India? I put the question to the author, Arun Maira, who calls his book, and by extension himself, An Upstart In Government. "Because this book gets to the heart of the matter and lists out the missing ingredients in India's growth story." He talks about Indians running successful companies internationally. "Why can't they do the same here? Why can't we get our act together?"

Why indeed? "Confusion and contention", he offers. Political parties with their agendas are the smaller part of the problem according to Maira. He points to the lack of coordination among various government agencies leading to sluggish projects and missed deadlines. "And bottlenecks, so many of them that if Naipaul were to rewrite his 1990 book called ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now', he'd probably call it ‘India: A Million Bottlenecks Now."

arun-maira-book

"We are constantly in contention with each other. We celebrate a noisy democracy. In the process we cut our own nose off to spite our face", he says.

Where did the planning commission come in? Why did it become redundant?

"When the Commission was first formed, India had a small private sector urging the government to make big investments. The country both at the Centre and state level was largely governed by one party. India has changed considerably since then. We don't need the government to invest at that scale." He shares what Ratan Tata advised when the Niti Aayog was being planned. "What we need is one central radar to signal and guide all pilots flying their separate planes. The aayog needs to chalk out scenarios of the future, plan and ensure the collaboration of different entities."

Maira's book also calls Montek Singh Ahluwalia a reluctant reformer, a rare assessment of the man who is more often than not counted among the key reformers in recent times. "Policy reform doesn't happen by a mere announcement", he explains. "Stroke of the pen reform doesn't change institutions. You need to change the behaviour of people. You need a more engaged leadership. Montek was reluctant to change the working of the Planning Commission."

Is the Niti Aayog equipped to do what the Planning Commission couldn't? "There's a fundamental difference between the two", insists Maira. "The focus is and should be on job creation through enterprises rather than on GDP and numbers." It's interesting he brings that up because he was a member of the Commission when it came out with some absurd numbers.

In 2012, they spent some 35 lakh rupees to renovate two office toilets, and then suggested that citizens who spend 27 rupees or more per day were not poor. What were they thinking? "We were trying to see reality through numbers", he confesses. "People are not numbers. The planning commission had become an ivory tower."

Arun Maira was a member of India's Planning Commission from 2009 to 2014. His book An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning has been published by Rupa Publications.
First Published: October 2, 2015, 5:57 PM IST

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