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'Nation building can't be done by people on sabbatical'

August 07, 2017 14:48 IST

'We do not want people who are air dropped and who fly out once the job is done.'
'Ever since liberalisation started, we keep on hearing that it's going to be jobless growth.'
'This speaks of the failure of the foreign returned policy makers.'
'When questions are raised, answers should be given and not a resignation.'

Professor Arvind Panagariya

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch had been quite critical of the NITI Aayog ever since it supported genetically modified crops. It had also been critical of Dr Arvind Panagariya, the Niti Aayog's vice-chairman.

Dr Panagariya has resigned and will return to Columbia University in New York, where he is the Jagdish N Bhagwati Professor of Economics, at the end of August.

Dr Ashwani Mahajan, co-convenor, SJM, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier why the Manch is against the Narendra D Modi government airlifting economists from the United States.

Now that the government has appointed a home-grown economist -- Dr Rajiv Kumar -- to replace Dr Panagariya and not brought anyone from the US, is the Swadeshi Jaagran Manch happy?

If I say I am happy, many people may come up with various interpretations.

He (Dr Rajiv Kumar) had attended the roundtable conference on two years of NITI Aayog organised by the SJM in January.

He said there that so far the policies were being made for the elite class and the situation needed to change.

We, at the SJM, hope that he will change the elitist approach and the focus of the NITI Aayog will be the common man and the deprived.

Can we assume that the Swadeshi Jagran Manch had a hand in the government choosing Dr Rajiv Kumar?

Not at all.

Yes, he did attend the roundtable conference organised by us and he was in tune with what we have been saying all along.

Before he was appointed vice-chairman, he had shared with me an article he had written.

He wrote, 'It has taken 70 years. And yet, we are only now, under the Modi government, seeing the beginning of Indian policy making being liberated from external, more specifically deeply ingrained Anglo-American influences.'

'This is terrific news if it can be sustained and taken to its logical and efficient conclusions.'

Like us, he believes that we have to make policies for India and that Western policies will not work here.

You say you have no hand in the government choosing Dr Rajiv Kumar, but you had been quite critical of the 'corporate leaning' policies taken by the NITI Aayog under Dr Panagariya.
Was it because of the SJM's constant criticism that he decided to resign and go back to the US?

Pangariyaji said he could not extend his leave!

It is true that we had difference of opinion with the policies of the NITI Aayog, but it had nothing to do with any individual.

That was why we organised the round table conference. Arvind Pangariyaji did not attend the conference, but sent a letter to us saying he was interested in knowing what we discussed.

The NITI Aayog was created replacing the Planning Commission to have a better Centre-state financial relationship.

Under the Planning Commission, the states were treated like beggars.

The NITI Aayog was to follow corporate federalism in the Centre-state financial relationship which was a noble objective and that was why the Swadeshi Jagran Manch welcomed the formation of the NITI Aayog.

Did you meet Arvind Panagariya to express your objections about the NITI Aayog's policies?

I did meet him twice and expressed our views on the policies.

He was very courteous and listened to what I had to say.

As far as the policies of the NITI Aayog were concerned, especially that of GM crops, our position was totally different.

An organisation like the NITI Aayog that was supposed to guide the government on policies, it had to listen to all the viewpoints and take an impartial view based on scientific fact.

Also, agriculture is a state subject and the GM issue is related to the states, so the NITI Aayog was expected to follow corporate federalism and take the views of the concerned states as promised in the Preamble.

You should also understand that none of the states supported GM crops.

When you raised the issue of GM crops, what was the NITI Aayog and Dr Pangariya's reaction?

Panagariyaji said they wanted to educate the state governments on this issue and that was why they gave their opinion on the GM crops.

We were of the opinion that it was not the NITI Aayog's job to educate state governments; they had to only take the opinion of the state governments as they were one of the stakeholders.

We also felt that the NITI Aayog report did not take into account other opinions.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch has said on many occasions that Indian governments -- whether it is the UPA or NDA -- had been inviting economists from abroad to take policy decisions for the country, and that they did not understand India or what India wanted.

I am of the opinion that a think-tank like the NITI Aayog guiding the government should be headed by someone who understands India.

Not only NITI Aayog, even economic advisors or anyone from whom the government seeks opinion should be chosen from within; those who are connected to the soil of the country.

I always say that we do not want people who are air dropped and who fly out once the job is done.

Nation building cannot be done by people on sabbatical leave.

Do you feel that economists like Dr Raghuram Rajan or Dr Panagariya do not understand the real India?

Is it not true by the outcome?

If you want to improve the condition of the common man, you have to solve the basic problems of this country like unemployment, poverty, starvation, etc and not increase GDP growth.

These people are obsessed with GDP growth.

This jobless growth has to stop.

Ever since liberalisation started, we keep on hearing that it's going to be jobless growth.

This speaks of the failure of the foreign returned policy makers.

Why do you think Indian governments are keen on having economists from the US to guide them in policy making?

I fail to find an answer to the question.

Whenever I had a chance to talk to the people who make these choices, I understood that they were obsessed with the idea of development.

For them, the idea of development means FDI, big corporates and GDP.

For them, development is the way America is working.

India is not America and India's problems are different from America's.

To me, a person who has been working with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch for so many years, development means providing the basic necessities of life, health, education, housing and reasonable amount of assets.

Earlier, it was said that it was to please the World Bank that they brought economists from the US. But what prompts them to do so today?

Though the World Bank ceased to be a dominant force in deciding such appointments, the mindset of our governments about development has not changed.

When Panagariyaji came to head the NITI Aayog, we knew what kind of policies he would implement. He didn't surprise us also.

After all, he was only familiar with the World Bank, IMF, free trade, etc. He has not raised any voice on how poverty could be reduced.

When a debate was going on between Amartya Sen, (Jagdish N) Bhagwatiji and Panagariya on how poverty could be tackled, Bhagwatiji and Panagariya said that there was no need for any subsidies as the benefits would percolate ultimately.

Their suggestions were for land acquisition and privatisation of public health etc.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch is not with Amartya Sen or with Bhagwatiji and Panagariya.

Our dream is to have such a kind of economic system whereby people are allowed to earn sufficiently.

The solution is not a subsidy or an unemployment allowance; these things do not give a person any objective to live.

That is why employment should be the fundamental right of an individual. They shouldn't be dependent on government subsidies.

The third way is where small scale and cottage industries are allowed to exist, farmers are given due price for them to have a decent life so that jobs are created automatically and thus incomes are generated so that they are not dependent on any kind of government help.

You have spoken on various platforms and also written to the prime minister on the need to have policy makers who understand India.
Are you happy that Dr Panagariya has resigned and Dr Rajiv Kumar has been appointed in his place?

I did not write to the prime minister, but we have raised this issue many times at various public platforms.

It is the prerogative of the prime minister and the government to choose the person. We can only make suggestions.

In a democratic set-up, it is the job of an institution to ask questions on issues that concern the country.

When questions are raised, answers should be given and not a resignation.

Shobha Warrier / Rediff.com