Prof Rajeev Kumar, an economist from the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), is faced with multiple challenges at NITI Aayog, a responsibility which he will officially take over when Prof Arvind Panagariya demits the office of vice chairman on August 31. Prof Panagariya was constrained to leave NITI Aayog, the refined version of Planning Commission, as there was ever widening chasm between his style of functioning and other stakeholders including the Central government and the RSS strategists. As a result, Prof Panagariya was told to ‘quit’ which he did but ended up exposing the fact that what he offered as the reason to put in his papers was just the tip of an iceberg. There were many reasons which had made his going tough at NITI Aayog. The new incumbent will have to move cautiously. Apart from the correcting the mistakes of his immediate predecessor, Kumar will have to ensure that he does not repeat any of Prof Panagariya’s mistakes and also comes up to the expectations of the Centre and other stakeholders as well. He has too little time to show some palpable results to the people of India, which will have the General Lok Sabha elections in 2019. So, there is too much task for Kumar to take care of for which he will not have the luxury of time. He will have to act fast and decisively.
It will not be fair to do a comparison between the academic qualities of Prof Kumar and Prof Panagariya. If someone is at the helm NITI Aayog, whose chairman happens to be the Prime Minister of India, he must be pregnant with ideas to take the things to the next level. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate sold ideas to the people who voted him to power with a thumping majority. In the 2019 election he will have to come out with news ideas and the impact of his old ideas on the people’s well being, which certainly gives the new NITI Aayog vice chairman an opportunity to excel. For this, Prof Kumar will have to ensure freshness and newness in researches at NITI Aayog by discarding the work of copying and pasting. It will be unfair to Prof Panagariya to say that there was not much emphasis on original works during his tenure at NITI Aayog, but he was certainly too much influenced by the ethos and thoughts of western economists.
This, however, does not mean that the developmental economics of the outside world will have no relevance for Indian policy makers, but they will always be faced with the challenge of re-orienting them to suit domestic needs and constraints. Therefore, NITI Aayog will have to look for new ideas, which are easy to transform into action and the results of which will certainly make life easy for broad masses. India must get out of the practice of renaming and refining old schemes and should focus on ensuring their effectiveness. Notwithstanding a phalanx of welfare schemes, common man feels disenchanted when he does not get quality health and education facility for his children. His world comes crashing when he has no money to spend on his daughter’s marriage. A monstrously large number of people in India are still half-fed and have to spend nights under the open sky and for them education and health have relevance as staying alive remains their first and last concern.
Therefore, Prof Kumar will have to make the decision making process at NITI Aayog more inclusive in which other stakeholders are effectively involved. He will also have to bridge the gap between the thoughts of Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Centre on many vexed issues like foreign direct investment (FDI), genetically modified (GM) crops and the issue of cheaper medicines. The loot of common man by pharmacist majors is in the public domain today. Retailers and distributors are also minting money. There is a huge mismatch between the actual cost of medicines and the price at which these are sold through retailers to the end users. This ‘loot’ has been legalized post-Goods and Services Tax (GST) era even in bigger cities where the buyers used to get 10 to 15 per cent discount on all medicines earlier. In smaller towns and rural areas, medicines are sold at the minimum retail price (MRP). Hence, there is a challenge to ensure that the positive result of key policy decisions must percolate to broad
(The writer is independent commentator on socio-economic and political issues. Views are his personal)