Decoding NITI Aayog’s strategy for New India @75

The NITI Aayog has just released its 200-plus page “Strategy for New India@75”, a comprehensive approach to economic, environmental, and social policy in India to achieve by 2023, which has the major tenets of: development being inclusive of all citizens, as a “mass movement”; broad-based economic growth across sectors and regions; and bridging the gap between public and private sectors, with a focus on efficient delivery of public services and rooting out corruption. In more concrete terms, the document calls for economic growth of 9-10%, an increase in investment from 29% of GDP to 36% by 2022-2023, and an almost doubling of exports in the same time frame.

Here are the basics

To these ends, the policy focuses on a number of key drivers (labour reform, technology and innovation, financial inclusion, housing, tourism, and minerals development), infrastructure renewal and modernisation encompassing transport, logistics, water reform and urban transformation
among others, inclusion policies (education and skills development, health, gender and nutrition), and Governance measures such as civil service reforms, and improvements in the functioning of the judiciary and police, among other things.

The report has a number of “signature” and welcome policies such as the shift from agriculture to “agripreneurs” or entrepreneurial farmers, emphasising value-added production, crop diversification, price reform, on-ground absorption of technology and research, greater scale and productivity, backed-up modern value chain and transport and logistics operations, with an export orientation. Other important measures in the overall strategy include: continuing to extend the reach of banking
to all segments of the community as well as financial literacy; greater access to affordable housing through new construction models and techniques, housing finance options and faster and more effective approvals processes; improving “last mile” broadband and IT connectivity; priority for cybersecurity; greater use of market mechanisms for energy and integrated fossil fuel and renewable energy provision; shifts to decentralised waste management; improved access to, and higher quality
of primary health care and health professionals; and more relevant curriculum design in education and training and skills formation, including apprenticeships. These are but few of the many measures flagged in the strategy.

A step towards ‘modern, managerial’ governance?

There are many hallmarks of the Modi Government’s “managerial” approach to policy. This is reflected in the emphasis given to better collection and use of data and analytics to measure, benchmark and drive performance improvement and evaluation in Government Agencies and in
schools, strengthening processes of governance and government at all levels; a focus on accountability and outcome orientation amongst public authorities; where possible seeking greater co-ordination, and avoidance of wasteful duplication in service delivery; and streamlining cumbersome and vexatious regulations like labour regulations. Undoubtedly, these are all important and welcome things.

What is lacking

Yet for all this, one feels a certain unease about the strategy. Firstly, it has the appearance of a long “wish list” with little attempt at prioritisation or sequencing. Second, it lacks an overarching strategic approach or vision which could obtain buy in from the whole community (although we are told that a vision is forthcoming at some stage)- it is rather more an issue by issue approach. Third, it spells out many initiatives that are already underway in any case, for example as part of Swachh Bharat or “Doubling Farmers’ Incomes”. Fourth, given its importance, the section on innovation and technology is slightly disappointing and under-done with a key action being the establishment of yet another body, this time a vague coordinating one “empowered to steer holistically the management of science”. There is much and much more that can be done to harness the capabilities and power of science and technology, for commercial need and the social good, although the proposed “District Innovation Fund” to further promote grass roots innovation, is worthwhile.

Beyond this the strategy is light on for what we consider are crucial and far reaching challenges facing the nation such as how to address rampant inequality and how to create high value, meaningful, large scale employment opportunities, including for vastly under-represented groups in the labour market such as females. Not wasting India’s gift of the “demographic dividend” has to be more pronounced.

Above all one is left with a sense that the NITI Aayog is a work in progress, straddling the fence between being an independent advisory think tank with real grunt, and yet another instrument of Government.

Dr. Anand Kulkarni is a consultant and principal adviser for planning and performance at Victoria University.

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