Friday, January 02, 2015

An open letter to the Prime Minister of India #NITIAayog

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Wish you a very Happy New Year!

At the outset I want to thank you for your team's foresight to include the 15th century social reformer and renaissance saint of Assam Srimanta Sankaradeva and his writing - "To see every being as equivalent to one’s own soul is the supreme means of attaining deliverance" from 'Kirtana Ghosa' in one of the paragraphs of the press note launching NITI Aayog.

I just wished if spellings were correctly written...

I also want to congratulate the team for writing a good piece, smartly comprehensive, modern in its tone and savvy in its formatting. The acronym NITI - National Institution for Transforming India is quite creative as well. It is a document that can have a bright future if understood, implemented and executed well.
  • It stressed on transparency and the use of technology in a parliamentary democracy. It added that transparency about governance will only increase with time.
  • The note clearly indicates the intent that states will be given due importance and representation, by being more consensual and cooperative. It talks about being inclusive of all regions, castes, and tribes.
  • It talks about removing social and economic inequality which I believe is the bane of every evil that we are facing today. It talks about giving opportunities to the weaker sections to influence the choices, the country and the government will make in setting the national agenda. The intent definitely looks pro-people and pro-citizen.
  • It brings out the importance and contribution of the small businesses and how the government should help them at a policy level.
  • It has a mention about environment, climate and resources like water, land and forests and the need to respect them for sustainable progress and their inter-linkages with mankind.
Having said that, I would like to say, and you would surely agree that the press note currently resembles a document written by a smart, aware, blue-eyed MBA graduate who does not have practical experience working in the Government as part of the inter-ministerial, intra-ministerial, judicio-politico-executive machinery. The use of words and phrases like 'think tank', 'directional and policy dynamo', 'one size fits all', 'enabler' and many such words were, at best quite potent in terms of creating a favourable perception and mass acceptance of the press note and of NITI Aayog.

Sir, I understand it is just a press note and so we would wait for NITI Aayog to bloom before really trying to criticize it. All I want to tell you are a few points of caution that you may like to keep in mind. Firstly, you would agree that it assumes public acceptance of a few debatable hypotheses.

  • It eulogizes the private sector as if it is proven that it is the better alternative than the public sector in terms of general welfare and happiness index. It has a statement - "Global economics and geo-politics are getting increasingly integrated, and the private sector is growing in importance as a constituent within that". This practically is a meaningless point successfully praising the private sector. Why can't the public sector go up in importance as a constituent to increasing globalization?
  • It also blatantly assumes that it is a better option that public services be increasingly delivered by private entities, as if it is acceptable to the democracy and as if it is good in the long term to privatize every public service. Your team makes it look as if employees of private companies are from a better planet and the public entities are doomed with inefficient earthlings.
  • It makes a statement that urbanization is irreversible and therefore should be accepted. It indirectly refutes the concept of Swaraj, of small self sufficient villages envisioned by the father of the nation, Mr. Gandhi. It is overlooking the social evils of urbanization across the globe, especially in the capitalist economies of the world. Like me, there are many who are quitting their plum jobs in the metros to come back to their roots, their villages hoping to create a rural sustainable economy. Living in an illuminated concrete match box may be your idea of a good life. Lot of us prefer to stay in real homes in the rural India.
  • Lastly, you seem to be deciding everything in this new institution. You would be the Chair person. You would appoint the Vice-Chairperson, the 4 ex-officio members who would be from the Union Council of Ministers and the Chief Executive Officer. You may be efficient, a hard task master with the population behind you, but a good institution should be process / protocol centric, and definitely not person centric. God forbid, but what would happen if something happens to your health and you can't fulfill your duties. Sorry for saying that, but I am just being practical. I may try to have a little faith on you, but no one else in this country today.
Sir, as Aamir Khan had said in Satyamev Jayate and I too believe that the problem in our country is not about funds. It is about allocation and utilization. I heard a few weeks back that in the DONOR ministry alone, there are over 1500 sanctioned projects where the 'advance money' has been given for good. The North East gets a significant allocation of funds which are returned un-utilized, with the 'utilized' being the amount successfully embezzled into deep pockets. Secondly, it is about inter ministerial and other bureaucratic and diplomatic delays that people lose their motivation in between to keep following up on projects.

I understand that your document stresses on transparency using technology to monitor and evaluate the implementation of programmes and initiatives, but so does all documents of this stature prepared by all Governments, all ministries and all MBA schools in their group projects.

It is pertinent to define universal SLAs, standards and protocols that every public servant will be accountable and bound into. This is where the document lacks primarily perhaps because it is just the first document and a press note. Now that the name is finalized and the press note released, I would request you to finalize the road map strategy as soon as possible. For the road map, we need to execute three things: 1. Organise debates and publish them in media. 2) Organize ministerial meetings and publish the meeting minutes. 3. Initiate online research to get feedback from a wide ranging intelligentsia. All these three things should concentrate on defining the road map for NITI Aayog in the next 3 months. The road map should comprise the following:

  1. Defining the degree of executionary power of NITI Aayog in relation to other ministries and state governments. In China, the new planning commission was much more powerful than the earlier version and it has yielded them results.
  2. Define its reach till the 'gram' level. The document stresses on inclusivity in terms of diversity and geography. So would it have offices till the gram level? Or would it be just an office in New Delhi?
  3. What would be the selection process for independent panels that would be formed for various sectors, regions and domains?
  4. Decisions happen in meetings and so the importance of meeting protocols and expectations is critical. For instance, how many meetings do we need to arrive at one decision and what is the maximum time period to arrive at any decision. How do we arrive at a consensus in a meeting? Three member committees (odd) may become four member committees (even) with 3 hands being counted as a decision. For a six member committee, it would be four hands.
  5. How do we minimize the effect of lobbying by powerful business houses so that decisions can be inclusive to equitable growth. Capitalism is known to increase and rich-poor divide and what India needs is a mixed economy for a sustainable and equitable future. The road map should be clear about this intent of not making 'profiteering' a driving force in decisions regarding the country's welfare. I am sure, Sir that you understand the difference between 'being profitable' and 'profiteering'.
  6. The press note does not have a clear view on the ownership of our natural resources. For instance, I am given to understand that all natural resources under the ground belong to the centre. However, most of the coal mines today are open cast mines controlled by Coal India - a Central Government enterprise. NITI Aayog should have a roadmap regarding the utilization, control and revenue from natural resources and its bi-products. This is a cornerstone argument to bring down inequality and give equal opportunities. Assam had the first petro-chemical refinery in Digboi, but it does not have a petro-chemical economy till date. Gujarat has. Being a PM of the country, Sir I am sure you would empathize with the people of Assam and their lost opportunities, and the fact that they therefore feel exploited (and take guns).
  7. Lastly, the roadmap should define the punitive powers of NITI Aayog to maintain the standard, timelines and quality of execution.
Sir, I would say with humility and respect that if you can put the roadmap in place, including the above points in the next three months, all that your critics could do is to have sleepless nights.

Till then, I would just maintain that NITI Aayog is a well written comprehensive, yet a bit presumptive, written-in-a-haste document. It is yet to justify its change of name.

Joi Ai Axom.
Jai Hind.

Yours Sincerely,

Durlov Baruah
Duliajan, Assam, India

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