Niti Aayog's top guns jet setting the world

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi's group of advisors at Niti Aayog have been rather active in reaching out to the world information provided to Business Standard under the Right to Information Act (RTI) shows. 

The most avid globe trotter has been Niti Aayog’s vice chairman Arvind Panagariya who made nine foreign trips from April 2016 till March 2017. Panagariya has made 17 overseas visits since the Niti Aayog's rechristening in 2015 spending 45 days abroad.

Panagariya’s last foreign sojourn was to Frankfurt in Germany for the second G-20 Sherpa meeting held on March 22, 2017. Panagariya had begun 2016-17 with a visit to China in April 2016 at the G20 Sherpa Forum held under China’s presidency. While the Niti Aayog incurred an expenditure of Rs 4.63 lakh on his three day China visit, Panagariya’s two day Germany visit this year cost Rs 3.86 lakh.

In between these two G-20 summits at the beginning and end of 2016-17, Panagariya made seven other visits abroad. RTI information shows that two of these weren’t paid for by the Indian government. The first was his visit to New York in September 2016 to participate in a conference titled ‘Challenges Facing the World’s Trade System’ organised by Columbia University. The visit was sponsored by Columbia University. In February 2017, Panagariya again delivered a lecture at Columbia University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs. This visit was sponsored by John Hopkins University.  

All other visits were paid for by the Niti Aayog. These include his two-day visit to Japan in May 2016. Panagariya was part of a two-member delegation that also included Niti Aayog’s advisor Manoj Singh. Both of them were part of the high level joint committee meeting to discuss the Mumbai-Ahmadabad high speed rail with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo. The very next month in June, he was again in China for the third G-20 Sherpa meeting held at Xiamen. In July 2016, Panagariya was in New York attending the United Nations (UN) High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. He was accompanied by Niti Aayog’s additional secretary Alok Kumar on this visit. Niti Aayog incurred an expenditure of Rs 10 lakh on the three day visit.

In 2016-17, Niti Aayog’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Amitabh Kant also took to foreign shores with abandon. Kant who was appointed as CEO in January 2016, made his first visit abroad to the US in April to address US-India Business Council’s (USIBIC)’s annual summit in California. The very next month Kant was in the UK delivering a speech at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. This visit was sponsored by Oxford University. Kant made two other overseas visits in 2016 – to Japan in June and the US in October. Kant was in Japan for the first meeting of the Working Group of Niti Aayog and the Institute of Energy Economics. In the US, he was at Wharton University to talk on the success of the Modi government’s Make in India campaign. The tab of the one-day visit of almost Rs 5 lakh was picked up by Niti Aayog. While Kant is almost a year into his role as CEO at Niti Aayog, he seemed to have begun 2017 with two high powered foreign visits. In January, Kant was at the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland. Surprisingly, his four-day visit to Davos was cheaper than his one-day visit to the US. In May 2017, Kant was part of a four-member delegation to Israel. This visit was to lay the groundwork for PM Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel in July. Discussions focused on Israeli involvement in the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), another one of the Modi government’s various schemes to fastrack employment generation in India.

Bibek Debroy, a prominent member of Niti Aayog, was less enthusiastic in his foreign visits than his bosses. Debroy made four overseas visits in 2016-17. One of them to Russia in June 2016 was sponsored by the Russian Parliament. His last visit was to Seychelles in January 2017 to participate in the Bharatiya Pravasi Divas. The visit was sponsored by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) which functions under the Ministry of External Affairs.

While the above-mentioned information pertaining to 2016-17 was provided to Business Standard under RTI, there is information on foreign visits made by Niti Aayog officials from 2015 till April 2016 in the public domain. A look at visits made by highest ranking officials and prominent names of Niti Aayog since 2015 shows that Panagariya has been the most active of them all. From attending G20 Sherpa meetings in Turkey, to delivering lectures in Paris and attending breakfast round-tables in the US, Panagariya has been at the vanguard of Modi’s global economic outreach.

While the number of foreign trips made by Panagariya is not surprising, it is a throwback to the erstwhile Planning Commission days that the Niti Aayog has replaced. News reports suggest that former Planning Commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia had spent 274 days overseas from 2004 to 2011. Panagariya and Kant together meanwhile have spent 51 days abroad from 2015 to 2017. With a government keen to hardsell India to foreign investors, Panagariya & Co at Niti Aayog might just end up clocking more miles than Ahluwalia in the times to come.

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