In his last address to the Planning Commission earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who also happens to be its chairman, spelt out a new role for planners in an open economy.
Since 2004, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, one of the commission’s longest serving deputy chairmen, has been trying to mould it to fit into the new economic order, without much to show for his efforts.
Most attempts to retool the socialist-era Planning Commission have faced resistance, which led to either junking reformist ideas or watering them down.
The effort to imbibe fresh thinking started in 2004, the first year of the United Progressive Alliance decade, when the commission began inviting subject experts and professionals from outside the government to help with the planning process.
The Left, then a member of the UPA, alleged this was a sell-out to foreigners.
A full-blown controversy erupted when three of the four consultants resigned.
Arun Maira, a part of that group, stayed back.
By the time the United Progressive Alliance returned to power in 2009, the Left had pulled out of the alliance and the commission began appointing young professionals from reputed universities and colleges in India and abroad.
Around 30 of them are still working with the commission.
It also finally got approval from the finance ministry for appointment of consultants. But the jobs went to retired commission employees, leading to a rebuke from the finance ministry and the idea was dropped.
Later, Manmohan Singh wanted member Maira to head a panel to suggest ways to bring about changes, which dropped off the radar after a few meetings.
Finally, another attempt was made to reform the commission when a committee headed by C Rangarajan, chairman of the prime minister's economic advisory council, suggested the distinction between the government’s plan and non-plan expenditure be done away with.
Former Planning Minister Y K Alagh, however, said this was a move to dilute the role of the commission. This suggestion was put on the back-burner as well.
Amid all the talk of reform, the commission got embroiled in a series of controversies after 2009, sometimes more than it could handle.
A commission affidavit filed with the Supreme Court on September 20, 2011, said any person who spent more than Rs 32 a day in cities and Rs 25 per day in villages was not poor. This sparked nationwide outrage.
The run-ins between the Unique Identification Authority of India, an office attached to the commission, and the finance ministry also grabbed headlines, as did the issue of costly toilets.
“The controversies were eminent because the commission was sailing into new areas,” a senior member who was part of the process said.
The wrangling over poverty numbers laid bare the differences between some members of the government and the commission.
A cornered UPA announced the formation of a new committee under Rangarajan to identify the poor.
Despite altercations with the government, the commission did make some bold policy interventions.
One was restructuring the 147-odd centrally sponsored schemes, bringing their number down to 47 and also fundamentally altering the way plan funds are transferred to state governments.
This was applauded by even chief ministers of opposition-ruled states.
The commission’s current members, be it former cabinet secretary B K Chaturvedi, economist Saumitra Chaudhuri, social activist Mihir Shah or academician Abhijit Sen have chaired inter-ministerial groups to resolve complex issues—a role planners might need to play more often to stop questions being raised about India’s planning process.