Governance of Planning in India today

By Rajesh Tandon, Founder-Presdient, PRIA

In his speech from the Red Fort on August 15, the Prime Minister of India made it clear that the Planning Commission in its current form would be wound up soon; he informed the citizens that a new institution would be set-up through broader consultation and wider partnership with a mandate relevant to our times.

Ever since the new government assumed office in Delhi, there has been much speculation about the future of the Planning Commission. Many seminars have been held to deliberate upon ‘reinventing planning commission’ since ‘business-as-usual’ was perceived to be untenable.

Set up through a resolution of Parliament in 1950, the Planning Commission was a driver of macro-economic and development planning in the era of Jawaharlal Nehru. It gradually became an agency for preparing (and reviewing the implementation of) Five Year National Development Plans. In the last decade, under UPA regime in Delhi, it became a more active vehicle for allocating public finance to various centrally sponsored schemes as well as state governments.

In the context of the federal structure of our constitution, and growing disagreements between central and state governments on how to use public resources, the resource allocation and performance reviewing roles of the Commission received considerable criticisms. Increasing bureaucratisation of the staff of the Commission also implied that it began to be deprived of top-end technical and professional expertise. Hence, it was generally assumed that the new government of Prime Minister Modi will significantly alter its mandates and compositions.

In all these deliberations, arguments and counter-arguments, the focus has been only on the national level institution of the Planning Commission. There has been no discussion about the planning activity at state, district and local levels. It is clear that planning for socio-economic development becomes necessary when resources available for the same have to be mobilised and utilised to achieve certain developmental goals. So, the need for planning socio-economic development is very much there. The questions are at what level such planning should be undertaken, by whom and with what capacities?

In the promotion of ‘cooperative federalism’, the new government in Delhi may develop consensus on key socio-economic goals over a term. By galvanising collective agreements, it is possible to not only agree on over-all GDP growth targets, but also specific achievable goals in agriculture, education, health, water, sanitation, skill-development, etc. Since the starting points for each state on these goals may be different (and some regions of the same state may also differ, like Marathwada and Konkan in Maharashtra), it may then be left to state governments to undertake more conrete goal-setting over a five year period, say. This goal-setting by state governments may also require setting targets for resource mobilisation (in addition to what is available from the central pool of public funds).

Do state governments have appropriate institutions to undertake such planning, monitoring and re-planning? On paper, all states have some version of a State Planning Board (chaired by the Chief Minister). But, most such institutions have been non-functional; several do not even have members, and/or professional staff to assist in its functioning. Can then re-structuring of the national institution, the Planning Commission, be accompanied with some concerted, collective approach towards strengthening of State Planning Boards?

The Constitution of India, however, provides for only one institution for planning; the District Planning Committee (DPC) is enshrined in section 243Z of the Constitution. It mandates that DPC should undertake planning for ‘promotion of economic development and social justice’. The Constitution provides for a composition of the DPC chaired by the Chairperson of Zila Parishad, Mayor of the largest municipality in the district as Vice-Chair, other elected leaders, experts and officials. The DPC came into the Constitution at the time of 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1992-93. As a consequence, the governments in Delhi and state capitals had got used to highly centralised, top-down, and sectoral/departmental planning based on mere spending of allocated budgets. The entire focus was on spending budgets allocated from the above; there was no attempt to demonstrate outcomes and achievements of goals established in advance. Whatever could be achieved was stated as goal, post-hoc.

As a consequence, DPCs in most states are neither properly constituted nor competently resourced. In 2006, after much pressure from civil society, the Planning Commission became strict to demand district-level plans before approving annual state plans. It also assisted several state governments by demonstrating how such plans could be prepared (PRIA itself was involved in six states).

However, the DPCs continue to be weak and under-resourced to undertake bottom-up, inclusive and inter-sectoral integrated planning; this is despite the fact that they are the only mechanism that can integrate rural and urban aspects of a district, focus on each Gram Panchayat and ward, consolidate at each block and taluqa, include non-state actors (like business and NGOs) in the identification of needs and gaps, and devise locally implementable and sustainable plans. In addition, 95% of more than 4500 towns and cities of the country do not even have urban planning institutions and competencies.

Hence, it is important that the next steps in redefining the mandate and structure of this new institution in lieu of the Planning Commission should also include developing a consensus on how to strengthen planning functions at state, district, block and city levels. A holistic approach to governance of planning for ‘economic development and social justice’ must be taken to ensure that re-structuring doesn’t remain confined to national level alone

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