Old wine in new bottle

The National Institution for Transforming India (Niti) Aayog on Wednesday released the “Strategy for New India @ 75”, a document that lays out the roadmap for policymaking in India over the next three years. The purpose of sharing it, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his foreword, is to “encourage discussion and debate, and initiate feedback for further refining our policy approach.” To that extent, the strategy paper largely builds on the language of the National Democratic Alliance government over the past four years. The document states that India is ‘currently putting in place a “development state” guided by the philosophy of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. To further this trend, it carves out the economy into 41 sectors — which are further divided into four categories, namely drivers, infrastructure, inclusion and governance. For each of these sectors, it evaluates the progress already made, the challenges that remain, the binding constraints, and it ends by suggesting a list of reforms to achieve the stated objectives in each sector. 

The document lays out the aim of accelerating the economic growth rate to 8 per cent and propel the country towards a $ 5-trillion economy by 2030 in order to create enough jobs and prosperity for all. To achieve this goal, it underscores the need to boost the investment rate in the economy from 29 per cent now to 36 per cent by 2022; turn farmers into “agripreneurs;” promote zero budget natural farming and codification of labour laws, among other things. In other categories, too, the suggestions read like old wine in a not so new bottle. For example, it talks about the need to boost inland shipping and removing the digital divide under “infrastructure”; the need to boost affordable housing and improving learning outcomes in “inclusion”; and the need to implement the recommendations of the 2nd administrative reforms commission under “governance”. 

All these are honest intentions. But the point is that there is no lack of guidance on what to do; the problem has been how to do it. According to data provided by the housing and urban affairs ministry, only about 15 per cent of the 5.5 million houses sanctioned under the Centre’s flagship Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) has been completed as of September this year. Similarly, as against a target of 10.2 million houses by March 2019 under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana —  Gramin (rural), only about 3.4 million have been constructed by the end of March 2018. In that context, the document has failed to inspire confidence on how its lofty goals will be achieved. For instance, it is unclear how educational outcomes in primary schools will be improved. Similarly, the problems in Indian agriculture is way past the stage where more subsidies will be enough. The document merely mentions the of-repeated target of doubling farm income and prescribes the same old measures. In that sense, the target as well as the prescriptions lack credibility. 

It is impossible to imagine how such a “radical transformation” for a “New India” can be achieved by 2022-23. Niti Aayog is in an ideal position to provide the government with the crucial research heft and intellectual underpinning for its policy initiatives, making it a genuine and powerful agent of transformation. The vision document has once again fallen short of that expectation.

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